Many people look to massage for help to cope with chronic pain and for 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. While I’m no expert, I do make it a point to read and learn as much as I can about the subject, which 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 to the body. A person’s concept of pain and their past experiences with it can affect their current pain experience. Stress, mood, and relationships are other influences. I consider these factors with nearly every client; 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 a room in our house that we use for a work-out space. I had been feeling a bit run down, stressed, and having problems sleeping. My energy level was affected so I wasn’t feeling up to the task. However, keeping myself occupied seemed to take my mind off the crummy feeling, so I decided to power through. Before we began, a piece of exercise equipment needed to be moved. It is a heavy load, but still a weight I knew I could lift easily, except that I was feeling crappy and weak. Regardless, my ego said, “Do it!”, so I did. My husband held one end and as I picked up the other end, I knew my decision was a mistake. But that ego! I started walking and carrying this load with my brain yelling at me to put it down. I finally told my husband that the machine was “coming down NOW”. I set it down and immediately felt an intense sharp pain in my 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 against it. 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 purposively 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, such as: What does the pain feel like, what was the intensity level, and could 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 without any weird sensations. So, I stood up and decided to go downstairs and sit on the couch until I could figure out what the next step should be. I sat there for a while thinking about my pain and its implications. Then 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’ve learned started to surface. I started making more rational conclusions and plans: I can walk, so I should get up and keep moving so that my brain knows my body is safe. So, I walked around my house, at first stepping softly and paying close attention to how my body moved and felt. I eventually realized I was moving just fine. My back hurt, but it was safe enough to move. I decided I could try to get back to painting. So upstairs I went where I gently stepped onto a step ladder and gently picked up a paint roller and gently began to paint. Yes, my back hurt, but it wasn’t the kind of pain that told me I had done some sort of detrimental damage. Once I came to that conclusion, I found that I was able to move more normally, though within my pain tolerance.
Psychosocial influences on pain
My initial response to the pain surprises me given what I have learned about pain science. I have had my own experience with chronic back pain that makes me afraid of hurting like that again. I felt the fear of closing my business that I struggled to keep open during the Covid pandemic. I had the fear of being immobilized for a long period, a significant concern as an avid runner who uses movement as a major part of self-care. These fears, past experiences, and expectations had created a narrative in my brain before I even had a chance to assess my potential 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
Wondering the point of the story if it’s not medical advice? It’s to reinforce what I tell a lot of you often: Pain is weird and it is 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. And I will do everything I can as your massage therapist to support you. You will always have a space to tell your story and have the massage you need to feel more like yourself again.
Want to learn more about pain? I have some resources for you here.