We Need 20 Words for Pain.

January 7, 2014

If you know me, you know that I have a lot to say about pain. There is simply not adequate language in English to describe the diverse signals that the nervous system gives us. Just because you might resort to the word pain or the exclamation OUCH! doesn't mean that I, as your massage therapist, know what you are experiencing. You've probably heard questions like these before: is it sharp? radiating? dull? stabbing? hot? What I want to know is: 'is it sweet pain or sour pain?'

 

'Pain' is simply information from the body gathered through the nervous system and communicated to the cognitive portion of your brain. So, before you get on my table, we will explore the meaning of pain together. Most folks can relate to the “hurts so good” feeling of kneading a sore muscle. The nervous system is reporting to the brain that moving those muscle fibers together causes intense sensation while concurrently reporting the healthy sensation of lactic acid being squished out and nutrients being pumped in. The nervous system can communicate that something is productive-- how cool is that?!

 

This is the basis for my all of my work.

 

Sweet pain is experienced when I apply pressure/movement/stretch to muscles, tendons, and fascia because these tissues respond positively to pressure. It causes intense sensation, but it is productive, you want to lean into it, you might even feel like an animal rubbing against a tree, finally getting to that spot in the middle of that back. Essentially, your nervous system is recognizing that whatever is happening is getting to a level of depth that you generally can't reach... and it is gooooooood.

 

But of course, too much of a good thing is still too much. Eating one piece of chocolate cake legitimately tastes divine. Eating 10 pieces doesn't change the cake at all but it might not be still be making your body very happy. Sweet pain is the same-- your body can communicate that the sensation is not damaging your tissue while at the same time telling you that you've reached your threshold. Isn't that amazing!?! That is nuanced communication that you are having with your nervous system.

 

Sour pain, by contrast, is intense sensation that is unproductive and the message your body sends you is like an alarm. Sour pain generally results from applying pressure to something that doesn't respond to pressure positively, like a nerve bundle, a bulging disc, a torn muscle, an inflamed tendon or joint dysfunction. Think back to the last time you hit your funny bone...was there any doubt anywhere in your mind that you wanted that sensation to stop? Probably not.

 

I establish this language with each new client because I consider sessions a collaboration between client and therapist. I can feel things happening in your tissue but you are in communication with your nervous system. When I can trust the client to verbalize the nervous system's messages, we can safely work in the most productive zone for releasing muscle tension-- the place just before the sweet pain threshold is reached where no alarms of sour pain are being sounded.

 

Sweet pain is of course where I want the session to live. Compression mimics the signal the nervous system naturally sends the muscle to relax, so with the anatomical precision of trained hands, the more I can apply the better (note: “trained hands” means don't try this at home kids!!).

 

By establishing all of this language, we are creating the space for you to do whatever helps you stay relaxed in the midst of intense sensations. If we agree at the beginning of the session that you are in charge of saying “too much” and “sour” then I will not second guess your process. Go ahead, slow your breathing way down, utter a mantra under your breath, laugh hysterically, grunt or curse a blue-streak. So, if you don't say "sour" or "too much" then I will trust that what you are doing is serving you. This way more of my focus can be on the muscles and, less of your focus is self-conscious about your body-language.

 

In the end, the body-aware-communication goes home with most of my clients. Nuanced communication with the nervous system doesn't have to end at the end of our session. This awareness traveling with you throughout the rest of your life is the passion of my practice. My hope is that bodywork gives you enhanced language for understanding and communicating what is really happening when “something is painful.”

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