Pain: your body is trying to tell you something

Before news broke of the lastest USADA accusations against Lance Armstrong and several other cycling personalities, one of the controversial stories to come out this week concerned the RadioShack-Nissan decision not to race Chris Horner in the Tour de France. There are definitely more knowledgeable pundits to analyze the situation, but there is one aspect of the story that caught my attention — and it had nothing to do with racing your bicycle.

Velonews.com reported, “Horner admitted that his back issues are triggered by outside stresses, and acknowledged that there is more stress on his RadioShack team this year than in the past.” Well, it is certainly true that there is a lot of stress on the team this year. The “super-team” isn’t living up to the hype. Now that Andy Schleck is out of the Tour and their team manager is implicated once again in a doping cover-up, it almost appears to be a team imploding.

The more I have experience with pain, the more I come to believe that pain is used by your body to tell you more than just that you have an injury. I’m not saying that pain is “all in your head.” However, I am saying that your head can cause some pains. Getting your head straightened out can help ease or alleviate pain.

Let me give you a personal example. Several years ago, I was having a VERY stressful time at work. I was working my regular job (which required typing) and then I was going home and working my second job (which required using a keyboard). I started to notice my fingers were beginning to hurt. The pain grew and grew to the point where I could hardly type.

Now, my mother has rheumatoid arthritis. She has lived with the associated pain since her 30s. Of course, when I started to feel this pain in my fingers, I begin to wonder if perhaps I was also going to have the same condition. So, I finally gave in and went to the doctor for blood work to see if perhaps I was a candidate for arthritis.

I remember clearly the pain I was experiencing. It was enough that it was nearly immobilizing me. The stress of work was being compounded by the stress caused by the fear that I might have pain the way my mom has had all these years. The night before I received the news from the doctor, I could hardly sleep because of the pain. Then the news came to me… I had no indications that I had arthritis.

What a relief! While the pain did not go away immediately, I can tell you that the flood of relief was almost physical. I went to bed that night still in pain, but with hope.

This is not a lie… I woke up the next morning with zero pain in my fingers. The pain was simply gone. At that time I had no idea what might be going on. Having now gone through multiple injuries in my cycling career that have created “weak spots” in my body, I think I have a better understanding of what was happening.

Stress is dangerous. The pressures around us and what it does to our minds and bodies is not always obvious. For those of us who tend to internalize the stress of these pressures it can be even more insidious. It can affect us emotionally, physically and in our relationships. However, how is it you know that you are entering an elevated level with this unseen danger?

Physical pain.

Let’s go back to my example. First, notice that I had been working a lot with my hands. My fingers were overworked on the keyboard. There was some pain caused by repetitive physical stress. However, my mental stress was pretty high. My system needed a way to tell me that I needed to deal with it. So, the body looked for a weak spot in my system to get across the message. It targeted my hands.

That is when the pain really ratcheted up. It was almost to the point where my body was stopping me. Basically, it was my body’s way of telling me I needed to deal with the outside issues.

Of course, my initial response was to back off on the physical activity. I recognized it as a physical problem. I took a break from typing. However, my fear of arthritis just compounded the stress and I wasn’t seeing any change.

Then the day came when the overarching fear of arthritis was removed and — voilĂ  — the pain was gone. I would also point out that all of this happened toward the end of the stressful time at work. So, it all coincided that the stresses were released at that time.

Now over a decade later, I have multiple weak spots in my body. My right shoulder and right hip are my warning spots now. It used to be the middle of my back. I would get incredible pain in my back. However, as soon as I had my accident in 2009 that damaged my shoulder and hip, I stopped having back pain.

So, the point of all this? Well, I understand what Horner is saying about his back issue being induced by “outside stresses.” I also know that you can deal with it and the pain will subside.

How do I deal with it?

  1. Evaluate the pain. Obviously, if you break your arm, you wouldn’t chalk that up to “outside stresses”. Going to a doctor is a good idea. What about those times when you feel pain in an old injury or in a spot that you just can’t understand why you would feel pain there? Think about it and ask the question, “Okay, body, what are you trying to tell me?”
  2. Find the outside issue. Now start thinking outside your body. Is there something that is causing me a large amount of stress? What am I constantly concerned about?
  3. Deal with the outside issue. Removing the stress is the easy answer, but so often you can’t do that. So, you must learn to deal with it. As a Christian, I find that most of my stress is caused when I try to take control of my life rather than finding peace and comfort in the knowledge that Jesus is in control and wants to use the “outside issue” to grow me.
  4. Start moving. When I recognize that my body is warning me with physical pain that I need to deal with an issue in my life, I turn to God and seek to turn the “bad” into a “good” by trusting him to improve me through it. I aggressively turn my thoughts from “how is this hurting me” to “how can this help me”. I focus on the pain and “tell it” that I know why it is there and I am dealing with the issue it is warning me about. Then I start moving through the pain. I don’t let the pain immobilize me.

It works. Sometimes the pain pops up in a new place and I deal with it there. I’m convinced that a lot of the “back pain” that people have can be traced back to this. Again, it isn’t that there isn’t a physical root to the pain. The question is whether the physical issue is of a nature to explain the magnitude of the pain.

Feel free to scratch your head. However, consider it. Next time you get that pain that makes you say, “Oh no, here it comes again” stop and think beyond the pain.

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About Jonathan Pait

Jonathan started riding mountain bikes in the early 1990s. After discovering the ride can start at the end of his driveway, he moved to the road in 2006. Little did he know that first pedal stroke would lead him on an adventure that has become much larger than the bicycle.