Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pain is only Information

When I was in my 3rd year of University I took a 3-week canoeing course. I was amongst 30 students registered who traveled to Northern Ontario during the late summer to learn how to canoe. We were lucky to experience 3 weeks of pleasant weather yet on the last 3 days during our practical examination our luck ran out and weather worsened. The skies became grey, the temperature was not more than 10 degrees and with the wind blowing and rain falling it became very cold on the lake.
Over those 3 cold days we were on the lake doing our practical examination on all the canoe fundamentals we learned. Most were in the canoe but the last test was the canoe over canoe rescue and this meant we all had to get in the water. We dreaded it because of the weather and some of us even questioned whether or not our instructor would actually make us do this last test. Needless to say, nobody wanted to go into the water during the canoe over canoe rescue. It was freezing outside and even just sitting in the canoe practicing strokes we were all shivering. Just before the last test, our instructor took us into the cabin for a pep talk. What he said to us will remain with me forever:
“We WILL be doing the canoe over canoe rescue. It is the coldest day of the trip but we have to complete the course with this rescue! You will all go into the water and that water will be freezing and you will experience pain. But what I want you to remember is that pain is ONLY information.”
Wow I thought, what a great way to look at this kind of pain. If we can just train our minds to think of it nothing more than signals to our brain then the canoe over canoe rescue will be no problem and most other non-life threatening pain like sprinting to the finish line or even hitting your thumb with a hammer can be easily dealt with.

What is pain?
Pain though a complex phenomenon involving multiple systems can be considered like other types of information our brain receives. But how do our sentient bodies process pain? When we experience noxious chemical, thermal, or mechanical stimuli that has potential to cause damage to our body our nociceptors become stimulated. These receptors then transmit a signal along the spinal cord to the brain and result in the experience of pain that can motivate us to stop harmful activity in order to prevent additional pain or damage to the body.

Pain is highly subjective to the individual experiencing it and therefore thresholds are different depending on the person. Yet, it is in the opinion of this author that like all information that comes our way, we have the conscious choice on how we let pain information affect our decision (and action) after the neurological processing to the brain and body part occurs. Some will choose to ignore the information while others will choose to heed the information. Both ignoring and heeding the information serve to benefit us at different times and we must be wise when it comes to understanding the pain we are feeling. We first must determine what type of pain is being felt because understanding this will determine our action. There are 3 different types of pain:

1)Somatic Pain: This pain originates from ligaments, tendons, bones, blood vessels fasciae and muscles. Ie: A torn ACL or the burn of the quadriceps muscle during a race.
2)Visceral Pain: This pain originates from the body’s viscera, or organs. Ie: Pancreatic cancer.
3)Neuropathic Pain: Is caused by injury to the nervous system that affects the spinal cord and nerves that conduct information to the brain and body, ie: Sciatic nerve pain.

We must be able to differentiate between the 3 types of pain we are experiencing. Obviously with neurological, visceral and most types of somatic pain it is important to heed what information is being sent by our receptors to our brain but in the case of exercise and minor injuries pain (somatic pain), it is just information that we can do a better job of dealing with.

I did the canoe over canoe rescue that day. I froze and yes it was painful but I kept a calm and collected composure that did not allow myself to think of the pain as an inhibitor. Most students overreacted when they experienced the pain of cold water and it probably prevented them from carrying out the goal of doing a well-executed canoe over canoe rescue. Don’t get me wrong, my nociceptors were fully firing to my brain but mentally I had control over the amount of pain that my brain normally would tell my body to feel.
In the case of physical fitness, going past the pain threshold our muscles usually bear can make us stronger, faster and fitter. In the case of minor injuries like bumping your head on a corner or being punched in the shoulder if we can process this information as simply being a signal that does no permanent damage we can become mentally stronger. We will then be able to go beyond this superfiscial pain, avoid hopping around, swearing and complaining with the feeling of pain. By no means am I saying we have to become masochists but yet consider how martial arts is taught – by showing pain it is considered a weakness. Pain is only information.

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