Got Chronic Pain? It’s Time to Move Differently

If you’re in chronic pain, it’s easy to get frustrated with your own body. There are a lot of unanswered “whys,” like “why is this flaring up now? Why is this painful if there’s no new damage? Why is this ruining my life?” As weird as it may sound, the answer to most of these questions is that your body means well.

Imagine being a low back. Your purpose in life is to basically exist so that other, more important body parts can do their thing. You accept heavy loads for hours a day, you flex and extend for 30 minutes straight when your boss decides it wants to do “the thousand crunch challenge” (please tell me this doesn’t actually exist), and you generally just do your best.

The low back doesn’t have eyes or ears, and it doesn’t know much about the purpose behind your activities. It does, however, have a huge amount of nervous tissue (nerve endings and spinal cord sections devoted just to it). What does it do with all of that processing power? It listens.

Eager to Please

Your body is your bro. It does its best to help you out despite the limited information it receives, and sometimes it makes… peculiar choices. I like to think of it as a faithful labrador that only wants to please its master, but it’s super dumb-as-hell so sometimes it makes weird decisions.

Who can be mad at that face?
Photo credit: dogeared

Let’s go back to the example of the low back. When it’s not in pain, it’s not really a part of our body that we think about all too often. It absorbs shock with every step, it forms a c-shape so that we can slouch, and it puts up with a lot of neglect. For years. Then, one day, it finally seems to speak up.

This is what we characterize as pain. You can think of it as your body complaining about unpleasant conditions. You can think of it as your brain warning you about possible problems in your body. Sometimes it’s just your brain getting confused and deciding to cripple you for odd reasons. More on that later.

Usually, however, chronic pain is a result of our body listening to us, and being a little too good at its job.

Your Attentive, Stupid Body

As if I haven’t said this a million times now: I’m a massage therapist, and a massage teacher. I’ve touched thousands of bodies (always with consent!), and I’ve noticed some patterns:

  • If you stand all day, you’ll have strong and inflexible calves.
  • If you type all day, you’ll have this beautiful T-rex posture.
  • If you do yoga a lot, your body will always be slack and loose, ready to stretch.
  • If you’re a runner. your body will be tight and ready to absorb thousands of impacts.

And on and on. Let me assess your body, and I’ll probably be able to tell you how you spend your time, because the body listens. Not only does it listen to the messages you send it, it responds by adapting in very specific ways.

Do you stand all day with limited walking? Over time, without you realizing it, your calves have gotten both stronger and tighter. As time passes, your calves become tighter and tighter, losing a degree of flexibility and gaining a millimeter of girth every month or so. Years later, you find yourself with lower legs like tree trunks and crippling foot pain.

Photo credit: glassghost

Body Logic

Consider what it’s like to be that lower leg. You’re being told a million times per day to contract the tiniest amount (standing requires frequent rebalancing, all of which is handled below our level of perception), you’re never asked to stretch, and you’re never asked to sprint. There are no jumping jacks or squats, just “balance balance balance.”

Shit, I’d join a union. The calves, faithful dumbasses they are, just do their best. In this case, they go into “tree trunk mode,” basically immobilizing and reinforcing your ankle and knee joint as much as possible so that you can keep doing what you’re doing.

But wait, if they’re just trying to help you, why the pain? Well, pain is a different beast. While you feel the pain in your feet, the pain isn’t coming from there. The  pain is a construct of your amazing brain, using its limited information about the world. “Man, things are worryingly tight down there. I’d better send the boss a signal to let her know that shit’s all fucked.”

The Lamest Story Ever Told

And… that’s it. That’s the story of most chronic pain. Each part of you is trying to do its best, they take it too far, and you’re left limping. It almost makes me want to change the title of my blog: This isn’t a conspiracy, it’s a Three Stooges routine.

If you have neck pain, it’s because your neck wanted to be your bro and thrust forward so that you could see the screen better. Your brain decided that there was some sort of problem, so it made this position painful. Your mind decided that this was an actual crisis, so it gave you a lot of worry and fear surrounding the pain, which just made the pain worse.

The upside to all this? You now have three places to attack: The dysfunction, the perception of pain, and the worry.

Reprogramming the Body

For this article, let’s just talk about how to deal with dysfunction. Your low back is all jacked up from slouching, or your elbow is sore from all the typing. What do you do? How can you convince your body that it doesn’t need to be so tight, and that you want to be able to do more than your job requires of you?

Do different stuff.

If your job requires you to spend 8 hours a day with your arms in front of you, typing away, spend 20 minutes a day doing something wildly different. Do jumping jacks, go for a run, try some yoga, or fight invisible ninjas while listening to dubstep. Anything that gets you out of Tyrannosaurus-mode will do.

Think of the message that this sends to your body: “Okay, we need to be in the fetal position for most of the day, but sometimes we need to be super stretched out, and other times we need to be capable of kicking ass. We’d better not get too tight.”

Er, it’s at this point that I’d usually give you some evidence to back up my claim, but frankly the research sucks on this. In any case, I’ve seen a lot of benefit in my clients who have changed their habits around and added some new activities, so… trust me?

As penance, I give you these resources on the benefits of yoga and tai chi, two of the best activities at making you “do different stuff.”

We Like To Move it Move it

That’s been stuck in my head this whole time, and my brain said I had to use it as a header. I apologize.

If you’ve got pain, move in lots of new ways. Stretch up, stretch back, curl up into balls, and see if you can’t still do a back bridge. Move fast, move slow, lay around for a day, go on a jog the next. The more ways that you move throughout your life, the more convinced your body will be that you require flexibility.

What say you? Have you found that working at your job has reshaped your body? Have you been able to fight back?

3 thoughts on “Got Chronic Pain? It’s Time to Move Differently

  1. Oh god. I don’t have chronic pain per se – I think of chronic pain in terms of syndromes; sometimes structural, often visceral; basically debilitating to one degree or another most days.

    However, it’s normal for me to have some degree of back pain (genetic + childhood injury:i it’s better than it used to be), and it’s normal to me to have my calves cramp walking uphill even though I have lived in a city made of hills for nearly half of my life.

    This ties into your article in as far as I’ve been dreading and planning to do exactly what you’ve outlined here for a wee while. My ankles are ruined from multiple injuries (I am a big pusher of actually recovering properly after “just” a twisted ankle now!) and every single muscle that attaches around my hips and lower back is so tight it feels like elastic stretched to breaking. I’m pretty sure that tension at the top and lack of shock absorption at the bottom has caused my current knee pain, and my hip pain is probably at least partially because of muscle tension. Oh, and I’m 29.

    I am trying to slowly reintroduce regular exercise but I cannot begin to describe my loathing of anything stretchy. I need modifications for most things and I know how to make a stretch work right, it just doesn’t work half the time because it’s too damn tight.

    Anyway. Just thought I’d say hey! Good work as always. Plus a giant paragraph of ME because that’s how I roll. 😀

    1. Haha, much appreciated Dana! You always add something neat to my comments. If your body won’t let you stretch in any formal fashion, definitely keep moving! You never see a chimpanzee hold a stretch for 5 minutes…

  2. I have definitely noticed this! My t-rex posture has become a lot more prominent as I changed jobs from extremely active/lifting things to sitting at a desk 8 hours a day. I bought a standing desk which helped (I have better posture when I stand) but now I just stand all day. I have been trying to incorporate yoga into my routine a few times a week, but I’ll be damned if I ever get my heels to touch the ground in down-dog. 😉

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