Many people look to massage for help coping with chronic pain and for acute pain relief. It was the reason for the first massage I ever had- chronic back pain from scoliosis. Because a large part of my practice is providing massage to people living with pain, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about it; this always involves learning about the central nervous system. Pain is an output of the brain, so it makes sense to understand just how complex pain is. And y’all, pain is indeed complex. Pain is more than just tissue damage. Everyone experiences and responds to pain differently based on psychosocial factors. Some factors that affect the pain experience have nothing to do with the actual injury: stress; mood; relationships; a person’s concept of pain and their past experiences with it. I consider these factors with every client and it’s always at the forefront of my mind. Given my studies, I found my recent experience with pain interesting. I thought I’d share that experience with you.
First, the real talk
What you’re about to read is not medical advice. The point of my story is not to tell you how you should deal or not deal with your pain or how to respond or not respond to it. Everyone’s experience is different and mine does not look like nor does it equate to yours. Do not take this story as a guide to living with pain. This is merely a story about a brief moment in my life.
My pain story
Recently, my husband and I decided to paint our work-out room. I had been feeling run down, stressed, and was having problems sleeping. However, keeping myself occupied seemed to take my mind off the crummy feeling, so I decided to power through. Before we began, we needed to move a piece of exercise equipment. Though quite heavy, I knew I could lift it easily…except that I was feeling crappy and weak. Regardless, my ego said, “Do it!”, so I did. As I picked up my end of the machine, I knew I made a mistake. But that ego! I started walking and carrying this load with my brain yelling at me to put it down. I finally listened. As I set it down, there was an intense sharp pain in my low back. It felt like someone punched me in the stomach and hit my spine. I hobble-crawled over to the nearest wall and slid down. I was in so much pain. All I could think was: What had I done??!? I was terrified I had caused some major injury to my spine. My questions turned dire: Will I be able to work? What kind of surgery would I need? How long would I be laid up? What would my recovery look like? Would I have to close my business? Without even realizing it, my brain had already determined the worst-case scenario as fact.
I finally grasped what was happening and began to purposely slow my quick and shallow breathing. I knew I couldn’t stay slumped against a wall all day, but wondered what would happen if I stood up. Would I make it worse? As my breathing slowed, I was able to ask myself more reasonable questions: What does the pain feel like? What is the intensity level? Can I feel my legs and feet? I concluded that the pain sucked big time, but it wasn’t as sharp as it was initially and that I could indeed feel everything in my lower body. I decided to go downstairs and sit on the couch until I could figure out what the next step should be. While resting and thinking about my pain and its implications, it dawned on me that I had just walked down a flight of stairs and across my house. I hurt but I could move and the movement didn’t make the pain worse. This is when the brain and pain science I’d learned started to surface. I started making more rational conclusions and plans: I can walk, so I should keep moving so that my brain knows my body is safe. I began walking slowly and softly, paying close attention to how my body moved and felt. Eventually, I realized that even though my back hurt, I was moving just fine. I decided to attempt painting. Upstairs I went where I gently stepped on the ladder, gently picked up a paint roller, and gently began to paint.
Psychosocial influences on pain
My initial response to the pain surprises me given what I have learned about pain science. My experience with chronic back pain made me afraid of hurting like that again. I feared my business- which I struggled to keep open during the Covid pandemic-would finally close. I feared being immobilized for a long period, unable to run, which is my primary form of self-care. These fears had created a narrative in my brain before I even had a chance to assess my injury. While I am well aware that factors such as these can influence the pain experience, I nevertheless struggled to recall this knowledge as I used a wall to hold me upright. I had to make a conscious decision to slow down my very protective brain.
What it all means
What is the point of the story if it’s not medical advice? To reinforce what I tell my clients often: Pain is weird and complex. There is no simple answer to why someone experiences pain and how they might free themselves of it. What I can tell you is that I see you and I hear you. Your pain is real and your concerns are valid. I will do everything I can to support you as your massage therapist. You will always have a space to tell your story and receive the massage you need to feel more like yourself again.
Want to learn more about pain? I have some resources for you here.