A few months ago, I was feeling great.
I was on my third set of the heaviest back squats I had done in quite some time, and was feeling surprisingly good.
Seemingly out of nowhere, my back completely seized up, rendering me unable to breathe or move. Which was an interesting predicament, as I was at the bottom of my squat with 125 pounds on my back.
After somehow ditching the weight and standing up, I felt waves of nausea, shooting pain, sweaty palms, and felt like I was going to pass out from the pain.
Later, I found myself saying, “I have no idea why that happened—everything felt great!” which was true in that one moment—but c’mon, I have a long history of chronic back pain. It really isn’t that surprising I hurt myself on a day where I decided to start ramping up the weight on my back squats, despite not having done any in a few weeks. A day I didn’t do my body scan I normally do to really ensure my body was working as a full unit, and also ignored some mild hamstring and hip flexor twitches in the few squats leading up to that last one.
And, more importantly, my brain isn’t stupid. I have a history of ignoring tweaks or other physical sensations.
Which gets to my main point here. The brain is 100 percent responsible for the pain we feel. No matter what. No exceptions. That is neuroscience. And, no, this does not mean the pain is in your head or you are making it up. I do not need to tell you that the pain the brain creates is incredibly real. And, as I was so kindly reminded, can be severely debilitating.
But it is the brain creating it. We do not have pain receptors in our body. (But we are going to save the neurophysiology lecture for another time.)
Ultimately, it was this knowledge that got me through the above-mentioned pain, and allowed me to carry out the treatment plan I teach others to do. Which got me significantly better within just a few hours.
I have no doubt that had I laid down and tried to wait it out a bit, I wouldn’t have been able to get up for days. If I had allowed the initial fear and anxiety that drowned any rational thoughts to fully take over, my path to recovery would have been long and unknown.
Instead, I breathed (well, my sad, painful attempts at breathing, ’cause I could barely take half a breath) and reminded myself to turn inward and listen to my body, and remind myself of the pain neuroscience I know so well, and, I promise, is super easy for you to learn, too!
I realized that at this point in my life, I can assume my brain has learned that unless it is being in my face and damn clear about pain, I do a piss-poor job of listening (that can be story time for another day). And the only way to make me stop is to make damn well sure that I cannot physically move. Effective, right?
Who knows? Had that pain not happened, maybe I would have had a far more serious injury. Pain, especially acute pain like that, is protective.
This also means the level of pain intensity is not indicative of tissue damage. It is more a measure of how badly the brain wants to ensure you are listening.
The muscle spasm that was occurring in me is a great example of this. Muscle spasms can be debilitatingly painful, but at the end of the day, really aren’t actual tissue damage or injury.
Still not sold that pain is not correlated with injury level? Ever stubbed your toe? How bad does that motherf*cker hurt? Is there ever any actual injury? No. You just forget about it five minutes later, and the pain completely goes away.
For whatever reason (I haven’t come up with a good theory as to why—I am so open to ideas), the human brain seems to be wired to feel that hitting one’s toe is the ultimate threat. This applies to the flip side, too, where people have intense injuries and tissue damage, but very little pain—like when someone breaks their leg in the woods and manages to drive themselves to the ER.
So, to sum up the main points we’ve covered so far: pain is 100 percent created in your brain, and pain intensity is not representative of tissue damage.
If you’re experiencing low-back pain, you might be starting to see where things just aren’t always as they seem.
In my case, I went from debilitating pain that usually results in someone being out for the count for weeks to moving pretty much normal within a few days. A true tissue injury doesn’t heal this fast. So therefore, it couldn’t have been anything serious—despite the intensity. This is where having knowledge of how the brain creates pain benefited me tremendously.
Unfortunately, most pain stories are the opposite. Many lack any big episode of pain, but end up lasting months or even years. The reality is, tissues heal in three to six months. Pain that is lasting after that is a direct result of changes in the nervous system. This is a proven, undeniable, scientific fact.
And the best thing about this science? It has proven that we can actually rewire these pain patterns that have occurred.
But that’s for another time.