Why You Should Approach Your Pain With Curiosity, Not Fear
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OW! What Just Happened?
You raise your arm above shoulder height and it feels like someone’s sticking a knife in you.
What the what?!? It didn’t hurt the last time you did that. Or maybe it did, just not as much.
Maybe you have pain somewhere else that’s triggered by a different movement.
Maybe you have chronic pain that hits at random times in random situations.
Wherever your pain is and whenever it’s triggered, you may feel like you only have 2 choices:
- Completely protect and don’t move the painful area
- Push through the pain because you got sh*t to do
What if I Told You There’s a Different Way?
It’s completely natural to be afraid of triggering more pain… It’s totally OK to not want to trigger more pain. I also understand the instinct to push through it, and may be (read: definitely am) guilty of doing that more than a few times in my own life. But those 2 reactions are opposite ends of a great big spectrum of things you can do. Go Big (push through) or Go Home (protect) may be our beloved responses to so many things in life, but there’s a middle ground.
I can hear some of you now: “but my doctor told me to rest my shoulder.” Yeah, they probably did. But resting it and not using it at all are two completely different things. If your doctor wanted the painful area immobilized, they’d give you a brace or a cast, or some other way of ensuring the area can’t move.
You can move without exerting yourself. In fact, when you’re in pain, research shows that the one thing you can do that will improve and hasten recovery more than any other is to move within tolerated limits. How do you do that? You become curious.
I’m going to say that again for the folks in the back: The best thing you can do when you have pain, is to move.
It doesn’t matter what activity you do, as long as you keep moving. It’s more effective if you actually like doing it. Do you like to walk? Then walk. Even if it’s slower than normal. And it will probably be slower than normal.
Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat but it Won’t Kill You
Being curious is easier said than done, because you have to override your go big or go home mindset. That said, once you get the hang of it, it’s not difficult. Being curious about your pain can look very different from one person to another, depending on the nature and severity of the pain. But here are some of the most common ways curious can look:
- Remember: when being curious, move slowly. Nope. Slower. It should take 5-7 seconds for:
- your outstretched hand to go from palm up to palm down and vice versa.
- your neck to go from straight up to bent forward, bent backward, tipped to either side
- your neck to make ¼ of a circle (back to side, side to front, front to side, side to back)
- your ankle to make ½ a circle
- your toes to go from pulled up toward your nose to toes pointed away from you
- your ankle to move your foot from as far right as it goes to as far left as it goes.
- Visually note how slowly your body looks when moving at this speed. Use that speed.
- Move slowly, and only until you get the first subtle twinge of pain, to determine which ways you can move without pain and how far you can move before you begin (BEGIN) to feel a twinge of pain.
- If the painful area can move in a circle (think shoulder, hip, ankle, wrist, neck), where in that circular path is it painful, where is it pain free?
- Start by moving in all the basic ways (note: some aren’t applicable to some areas, these are just examples to get you started): forward, backward, left, right, away from the body, toward the body, twist right, twist left, etc.
- What other single movements can that area do? Which ones are painful? Which are painless?
- Next do 2 movements at a time: forward while twisting right, side bending left while twisting right, turning arm palm up while raising it or lowering it, palm down while raising/lowering the arm, etc.
- Do as many combinations of 2 movements as you can come up with.
- Now repeat that process with 3 movements, 4 movements, as many combinations as you can.
- Repeat painful movements at least 5 times in a row (s-l-o-w-l-y) or until you have no pain, whichever is sooner.
- Notice if the pain decreases with each repetition. If so, do it some more until the pain is gone or stops decreasing.
- If the pain increases, stop.
- Notice which activities are painful, which are not. Can you walk your normal pace without pain? If not, can you walk slowly without pain? Can you swim without pain? Can your ride your bike without pain? Can you put dishes in the upper cupboards without pain? What about the lower cupboards? Can you wash your face pain-free? Your back? Your feet? Brush your teeth?
- How many of your normal activities can your do, even if it’s slower than normal?
- Notice if you’re tensing up extra muscles when you try to make a painful movement. For instance, are you tightening your hip or leg muscles when you’re moving your arm? Are you tensing your arm or shoulder muscles when you’re simply sitting stationary? Do a mental body scan to find out where your tensing muscles that aren’t needed for whatever you’re doing.
- Are certain surfaces easier to sit comfortably on, get up off of, rest your arms on, etc.
- Resist the Urge to Stretch while you’re being curious
Why Can’t I Stretch?
First, I didn’t say you can’t stretch, you probably can. I just said to resist the temptation. I don’t say this to deprive you of much needed pain relief, I say it to prevent you from creating more pain.
Here’s the deal:
- Muscles in pain can only do one thing; they contract.
- A painful area of the body guards itself against further pain by being hyper-vigilant. When it perceives a threat, it calls on the muscles in the guarded area to tighten up and contract.
- Over-stretching can cause muscle fibers to tear. Most people over-stretch. Go Big, right?
- Muscles have something called a stretch reflex that is designed to protect themselves from being over-stretched. It protects the muscle by making it contract. That “really good stretch” feeling you probably aim for is actually the beginning of that reflex being triggered. Whoops!
My Own Experience With Curiosity
Over the last 5 years, I have had 2 episodes of low back pain/spasm. The first time, I tried stretching things out (even though I knew all the above info at that time) and ended up unable to work for close to a week. The second time, I had been delving into and learning about pain science for a couple years and used what I had learned to become curious about what I COULD do without pain. That made me feel really good, because out of all the movements I tried, there were only a few that triggered my pain.
I also used my curiosity to find my activity limits. At no time did I stop moving. I simply moved slower. I used my curiosity to move into my pain several times in a row and often found that it “worked itself out” by the 4th or 5th repetition. The times it didn’t totally eliminate the pain, it greatly decreased it. I never missed so much as a minute of work, although I worked much more mindfully, which is good thing for everyone to do anyway, even when they’re not in pain.
Since my own successful experience using curiosity, I’ve been using this curiosity exercise with family, friends, and clients who have muscle pain and/or spasm. You know what? Each person told me that they were able to stay more active, recover more quickly, and had less fear about triggering their pain.
So, if you want a higher quality of life when you’re hurting, don’t fear your pain… be curious about it.