Quite often when we injure or hurt ourselves we tend to go back into our shells and stop our usual activities to prevent pain. This can often mean limiting our movement and exercise, as doing so creates more pain. This is normal and something that shouldn’t be feared.
Pain is a protective response to keep us alive!
Let’s think back to our hunter and gatherer days when our main goals were to eat, sleep and procreate. Back then our survival was dependant on how successful we were in finding our food. This, of course, required a lot of movement. In fact, modern day hunters and gatherers such as the !Kung and Ache tribes average 15-20 km per day. (Cordain et al, 1998). That’s over 20,000 steps a day!
Now obviously if we were to injure ourselves this would severely limit our capacity to hunt and gather. So our in built pain response was designed to allow for tissue healing and conserve energy while our capacity to get food reduces. This protective response in our paleolithic environment was vital to keep us alive. Now pain science can get a bit heavy so I’ve tried to reduce some of the key points for us to understand:
1. Pain tags the brain with the circumstances that lead to creating it.
A toddler only needs to touch a hot stove once to remember that it is not safe to do so again! Back in the hunter and gathering days this might have included the location of dangerous terrain or the time and place of an aggressive animal. Research has shown that the pain response will improve our memory of these specific details.
2. Pain prevents us from moving the affected area for a short period of time.
This is incredibly useful as depending on the tissue that has been injured. It can take around 2 to 12 weeks for the area to heal. Pain can prevent us from loading the particular tissue too much and too soon and allow for recovery.
3. The protective pain response triggers metabolic responses in the body to conserve energy.
Inflammation and cortisol (part of the stress response) both have been shown to increase insulin resistance. This both triggers the body to increase your blood sugar levels for energy and also store your body fat. This is a perfect response for when you didn’t know if or when you would get your next meal. Unfortunately today food is at an abundance and many of us put on weight after an injury. So nowadays we don’t find this too useful!
Pain has short term benefits but can have longer term consequences
As I stated above our protective pain response is really useful for those first few months after the initial injury. However, for many of us pain can go on for much longer than that or we may not have actually had a trauma to create an injury. Long term pain is quite often diagnosed as non-specific pain as doctors can not find any tissue damage or pathology. Sometimes this pain might be the remnants of a past injury that has fully healed. But for some reason our protective pain response remains.
Going into the scientific reasons as to why this occurs is not something we can quickly delve into. However, in part 2 of this blog I’d like to share with you some of the longer term adaptations that occur to us. These adaptations will give us a roadmap as to how to best free ourselves from pain for good.
Cordain, L., Gotshall, R.W., Boyd Eaton, S., & Boyd Eaton III, S. (1998). Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: An evolutionary perspective. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, 328-335.