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Runners Therapy: Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body

Posted Apr 22 2010 12:00am

I remember once I saw a billboard during a marathon that read, “pain is weakness leaving the body”.  Awesome description of the hard work you put in during a race, the pushing yourself cardiovascularly. However, for actual orthopaedic pain (pain effecting the joints, muscles, soft tissues and bones), it is the weakness in your body that causes pain.

Many runners forget that the body has a unique way of telling us when it is under duress and when there is a potential for injury or illness. This warning system is built into the body by chemical processes is called pain. Although most of what we understand about pain and how it works is considered theory and not fact, we do know that ignoring this chemical signal can be risky.

For a runner in orthopaedic pain  the signal of pain or discomfort is the body telling you that you have exceeded its capacity. For many of us we think we have high pain thresholds, or the pain ‘isn’t that bad’ so we run through it. We are doing ourselves a disservice. In effect each time you run ‘through’ an injury you are teaching, or training if you will, your body to accept this as normal. Thus, over time the body accepts a new level of normal. If the injury becomes more severe, again it learns a new state of being where pain signals and anti-inflammatory chemicals become more prevalent in the body.

Imagine similar chemicals in an allergic reaction for those of you that have allergies. Histamines are chemicals constantly released when you are around allergens. The more you are around the pets, dust and pollen that cause them, the worse your condition gets. Soon, even the slightest bit of the allergen in the air will set off more histamine response than it used to for that amount of stimulus. The more you sit by that dog or inhale the dust without taking an allergy medication, the worse your symptoms get…and the more you allow yourself to do this, the harder it is to get rid of the problem when you finally address it.

The same is true for your orthopaedic problems. The longer you do not address them, the longer they will take to fix once you do, because you have now established a new ‘normal’ for your body. This is really what I call chronic pain. It defines not the duration the pain has been existing as much as the point where the body has established a new ‘norm’ for that stressor.

Teaching your body to acclimate to certain weather conditions and find a new norm is a positive acclimation and your body builds resistance. Not so with pain. We don’t build resistance running through injury. All of my runners come in telling me they have such a high pain threshold so they can keep going through the pain…as its some badge of honor.  This is not only arrogant, it is antiquated…and belongs with our 1985 high school track days when coaches made us keep going regardless of pain. We know so much more about sports medicine today, and coaches who don’t should get with the times. We aren’t building resistance, we are building things like scar tissue which, if it is allowed to persist, actually weakens the area, leaving it more open to injury and making our problems harder to get rid of. So, although we may get away with it for years, rest assured, it may haunt you later.

My advice? Stop bragging to your therapist or your friends about how you can ‘handle’ the pain and run through it. And find a new coach if yours pushes you when you are injured. You are not a tough runner. In actuality your body is telling you it is too weak to keep running. Listen to it. Seek treatment and you will save yourself time in the long run.

Run smart. Use your brain, too

(Marisa, MS PT SCS ATC, is a physical therapist in private practice in midtown NYC.  She one of a dozen or so therapists  in the state of NY to be board certified in sports.)

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