Many people have heard of “no pain, no gain”, but it’s easy to follow this motto down the wrong road. Pain can mean a lot of different things to different people. What is felt can vary greatly, but common descriptions of pain include “ache, sore, sharp, stabbing, burning, shock/electric”, just to name a few. Pain tolerance can also vary from low to high. On top of that, past experiences affect how we experience pain, with traumatic events or persistent pain sometimes magnifying what people are experiencing. But pain is also used to describe what we feel during exercise, despite exercise being good for us. So that begs the question, is pain good or bad?
Function of pain
In short, pain protects us. That’s the main job. Pain is a sensation felt via our nervous system, with receptors throughout our body constantly sending messages to the brain, giving updates on the status of the body. If something is off in our body, those pain messages alert us to it. One way is through the intensity of pain. The intensity of pain often varies to try to match the severity of the issue. We can think of it like a stereo. Something small, like a scrape on the knee, may barely even turn the volume on. Other injuries, like broken bones or torn ligaments, can cause pain to skyrocket and force you to pay attention to it, similar to blasting the stereo volume so loud you can’t ignore it. If it’s painful enough, you’ll seek help to get the issue healed. The type of pain can also give clues as to what is going on. Sharp pain is usually more severe and present right after an injury. An ache or soreness can be indicative of a chronic issue. Anything that feels “electric” is often related to issues with the nervous system. Although how pain is experienced will be different from person to person, paying attention to what you are feeling can help give insight as to what might be going on.
What to expect from pain related to exercise and workouts
When you exercise on your own or at physical therapy, pain should never be severe. However, you may feel a slight burning sensation in your lungs or muscles or some soreness afterwards because of a byproduct called lactic acid that is made when your body uses energy. You could also describe this pain as discomfort, because it is pushing your body beyond what it is used to, outside its comfort zone. This is normal and, with adequate rest, helps the body get stronger. What isn’t normal is most other pain, such as a sharp, stabbing, or electric pain. As discussed above, these are signs that something is going on besides the expected discomfort with exercise. Pushing through this kind of pain can actually be detrimental, not just because you could make an injury worse, but also because pain that is severe enough can train someone to start moving differently. Walking with a limp is an example of this, and it can be difficult to correct, especially as time goes on. Getting checked out sooner rather than later by a physical therapist can help reduce pain and improve how you move before it becomes a habit.
So although unpleasant, pain serves an important purpose in our bodies by warning us of danger. Generally speaking, the more severe the pain, the more urgent it is to be seen by a medical professional. However, not all instances of minimal pain need to be evaluated, as minimal pain often goes away. Similarly, the burning feeling in your muscles and the soreness following a workout often subsides with enough rest and recovery. But when you have pain that is not getting better or is getting worse, the therapists at Core Physical Therapy can help you understand your pain and what is likely causing it, helping you on the road to feeling better.
Written by: Lindsay Brown, PT (West Des Moines Clinic)