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What's to Gain from Pain?

Posted May 07 2010 8:01pm
Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to be impervious to pain? As a martial artist, it'd certainly have its perks. It's the sort of superhuman power that belongs in comic books. Amazingly for some people it is a reality.

Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis CIPA is a rare condition in which children are born without the ability to sense pain or extremes in temperature. They are normal in every other sense. They can still feel other sensations and touch from normal body-to-body contact. But these people simply can't feel pain and never will. They can hurt themselves in all ways imaginable and may not even know it. And while this might all sound great, I'd think twice before wishing for this kind of 'invincibility'.

Children born with CIPA have no protective reflexes and as a result, they don't learn to protect their bodies from injury. Fractures, dislocations and joint injuries are a common occurance, and in some cases children have been know to accidently chew through their own tongues, or poke their eyes out. Many fail to even live past their 20s. If the reality of this situation teaches us anything, it's that pain is clearly important. And, without our body's alarm system, we'd be in serious trouble.

In martial arts a lot of what we do is also about learning how to dampen, even ignore that little voice. We're all familiar with sayings like "no pain no gain" and "a little pain never hurts" - the take home message: no one likes a wuss and if you're tough you can take it.

In training, pushing through the pain barrier and increasing one's pain threshold seems to be a big part of conditioning in both traditional and sporting circles. It's generally regarded as a way of cultivating mental toughness and overcoming fear. Like Taekwon-do founder, Choi, Hong Hi once said,
"Pain is the best instructor, but no one wants to go to his classes"
If this were true I wonder what Pain really would have to teach us? After all, if learning to ignore pain is good, to what extent should we refuse to listen to that little voice? Pushing through pain might earn one respect inside the dojo, but there are clearly times where this could be quite dangerous. And, if training is about self-defense and self-preservation, shouldn't we also be trying to look after our bodies? In learning to protect ourselves, how does constantly (and sometimes even permanently) injuring ourselves make any sense?

I don't really have any answers to these questions. All I can think is that maybe the idea of pain endurance is a question of intensity – a scale running from mild discomfort to crying like a baby. Or perhaps it's about good and bad 'kinds' of pain – qualitatively different voices we should listen to. In either case, if we're going to ignore some kinds of pain and not others, how do we tell the difference between the two? And, does 'pain tolerance' really make any sense at all if you only prepare yourself for certain kinds?

From a neurological perspective, there is one rather drastic treatment for patients suffering from chronic pain disorders. And in these cases the objective is not preventing them from feeling pain but rather to changing the way they think about it. A Bilateral Cingulotomy is a form of psychosurgery and a last resort for patients suffering from chronic pain. The surgery involves making lesions to a part of the brain which is responsible for integrating feeling and emotion with the pain response. After surgery, these patients typically still feel pain but without the normal emotional reaction to it – in other words, they're simply no longer bothered by it.

Maybe this is the kind of relationship with pain we should be aiming for – to treat pain as a guiding voice, rather than one we simply obey or ignore. Rather than sticking our fingers in our ears when we hear it nagging, perhaps we should be trying to learn its language so we can listen objectively to what it has to say. I can't say that I really like those conversations. I guess for the most part, that little voice has my best interests at heart and for that at least I should be grateful.

Still, there are a lot of cases where pain doesn't really make much sense and at least in that regard it can be a difficult language to understand. I'd be really interested in other people's views on the topic – what lessons can be learnt through pain, and in cultivating mental toughness? When and to what extent should we listen when its got something to say?
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