Physical pain is a funny thing.
In essence, it’s a biological reaction to anything that is thrown physiologically off-balance–a signal from the body that something shouldn’t be. The unrelenting spasms from a herniated disc. The stinging of air touching the torn skin from a paper cut. You know: pain.
Psychologically and emotionally, however, physical pain can take on different meanings depending on the person and the situation.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “No pain, no gain”? For the people who believe and live by this maxim, pain is an obstacle to be overcome or even a form of positive reinforcement. These are the people who thrive on increasing doses of hormetic stressors,* for whom the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” rings perpetually true. (These are also the people who are also prone to overuse injuries, because they can’t differentiate between delayed onset muscle soreness and a torn rotator cuff–or just can’t bear the thought of taking the day off to let an injury heal.)
For these people, pain is seen as weakness, as surrender. And for people who try to control every aspect of their lives, surrender is not an option.
I was one of these people.
I did not want to stop working out, so I figured that I’d have to heal myself as quickly as possible. Before taking myself to an orthopedist, however, I spent a little time diagnosing my symptoms on “Dr. Google.”**
According to the internet, all of the symptoms pointed to a possible stress fracture…but for the fact that the fracture would have been in the fibula and above the ankle. A brief anatomy lesson should explain why that was pretty much improbable: The fibula is not a weight bearing bone, and I experienced no direct (so far as I could recall) trauma to my ankle. A trip to the orthopedist pretty much confirmed my un-diagnosis: according to the X-ray, there was no detectable stress fracture (which wasn’t really an argument against having a stress fracture, since they are usually undetectable until after they start to heal) and there was good reason to be skeptical for the anatomical reasons described above.
In other words, I needed to suck it up and stop whining.
The doctor did give me a pair of crutches to use if I needed them, and he sent me back out into the world to do some serious damage to myself.
So I did:
I used the crutches for a few days, but using them while working in retail (and in the most crowded and fact-paced store in the mall) was nearly impossible. I found myself stuck in a customer service role, confined to a stool near the back of the store–which only added to my emotional stress, because I was trying to work toward a promotion in a sales role. So now, not only was my ankle impeding my ability to work out, but it was impeding my ability to get a raise.
I combatted my frustration by going to the gym and sitting on the stationary bike for an hour every morning before work.
One day while I was busy helping some customers get familiar with their technology, my right knee started to hurt. It was a strange pain, a burning, itching sensation that seemed to sit directly over my kneecap.
By the middle of my shift, there was a red, raised bump that seemed to be growing, swelling in size and making it difficult to properly bend my knee.
By the time my lunch hit, my knee was bright red. I was scared, in pain, and starting to seriously freak out. I found myself dissolved in tears at the Starbucks kiosk, crutches now doubly necessary.
By the time I clocked back in, I had some seriously concerned coworkers who were ready to wheel me out of the mall in a wheelchair. So I left early and drove to the hospital.
After many hours of sitting alone in a hospital room, waiting and waiting and waiting for anyone to bother to check on me, a doctor came in and told me I had a bursitis. Nothing. Just a little random, unexplained swelling. Go home and stop whining.
I went home and I waited for the little red spot to go away. And instead, it got much, much worse.
But at least I wasn’t thinking about my ankle anymore.
No pain, no gain.
*Defined, hormetic stress is the introduction of a stressor into the system that, while dangerous or destructive in large doses, actually creates positive biological responses in low doses.
In the context of fitness: when you lift a weight, your muscle tears slightly. Now, tearing a muscle is not generally looked on as positive–if you’ve ever ripped a bicep while doing a chest press, you know what I’m talking about. But in low doses–i.e. lifting manageable weights in a controlled manor–these tears are actually beneficial. Once your muscle has come to rest, it begins to repair itself–stronger than it was before. Hormetic stress is the simple explanation for how muscles grow.
In another context: getting a chicken pox shot is a hormetic stress on the body, because even though you might have a small negative reaction to the introduction of a virus, your body actually builds up an immunity and can then fend off large scale attacks of the virus later on.
**A phrase stolen from the inimitable Robb Wolf.