You're an avid weightlifter who hits the gym five times per week. You regularly do squats, deadlifts, and many others of those exercises that gym rats know and love.
However, despite your ability to deadlift twice your bodyweight, one morning, you simply bend down to tie your shoe and you completely put out your back. You're in excruciating pain for the rest of the week which lingers to a lesser extent for the next month or so before you go and get it treated. All the while, you've been doing what you can at the gym but have been avoiding deadlifts and have been extra cautious when bending over to pick anything up on a daily basis in order to protect your back. Every time you try to bend down, you recreate that most-painful sensation and it needs to be avoided. Finally, you decide to go get treated. (Perhaps even by an Athletic Therapist!)
Treatment goes great. After one or two sessions, the constant pain is no longer a bother. You have your homework to condition and strengthen your core and protect your spine. You go on your way out of pain - except when it occurs the next time you go to deadlift again. Although your therapist told you that the tissue is all healed and the inflammation is gone, that bending motion, alone, still elicits tension and pain through your back as soon as you square up to lift heavy.
So here's the question: Even after receiving treatment and home exercises, after the tissue is healed and the inflammation is gone, once you've gotten strong enough that you core should be stabilizing your back without a problem, this one movement still causes you pain. Why could that be?
Pain science is a fascinating field and I'm not about to go into the neurobiology and in-depth psychology of pain today. However, I will quote the Pain Science Podcast that I listen to in this.
"Pain is a conditioned response," and "Pain is an output, not an input".
If you know of the Pavlov experiment, this is like how he was able to trigger salivation in dogs every time he rung a bell. Essentially, all physiological responses, pain included, can be conditioned to occur whether the stimulus is appropriate or not. This is related to when I talked about pain avoidance habits and how they can propagate pain rather than prevent them. After such a prolonged period of time of an individual telling their nervous system that bending down is going to cause pain, the nervous system is now trained and hyper-reactive, sending out pain signals every time that movement is performed even after healing has occurred.
|Not kidding. This picture is how pain can work.|
This is actually a common occurrence. Clients who should be out of pain are still experiencing it due to their nervous systems, basically, working against them. In a way, although there is not actually anything wrong with those tissues anymore, the brain no longer trusts that particular movement pattern and will have a sympathetic response every time that it's attempted.
|Stupid nervous system!|
This case I'm discussing is, in reality, actually one of the more simple ones. In severe chronic pain cases, those inappropriate pain triggers can extend to nearly every movement and even light touch to the body!
In any of these cases, careful rehab considerations to both the physical and psychological side of the recovery are required. It's the responsibility of the therapist to guide the client through those movements - or other stimuli - very carefully to progressively allow the nervous system to adapt and trust the pattern again. At the same time, coaching a client away from expecting pain is important, otherwise it may leave a barrier that the individual might never overcome.
Pain is a funny thing and pain patients are kind of like the Murphy's Law of healthcare: Expecting the worst can cause the worst to happen. However, responsible therapists can recognize these barriers; no person should be trapped by their pain.
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