Pain: the good, the bad and the ugly

“No pain, no gain” – but does pain always mean gain?

 

The human body is designed to function and move pain free, so any sign of it is usually a symptom of a potentially bigger problem. However, as anyone who has embarked upon a fitness regime will testify, muscle pain can be a healthy part of the process. No pain, no gain is one of the oldest training clichés in the book, so to get fit and minimise risk of injury it is vital to be able to tell the difference between different types of pain. This will provide better body knowledge, enabling us to be able to distinguish the moments when we can push ourselves harder, or take an important step back.

Key pain signals and what they may mean

The build-up of lactic acid and the burn after intense exercise is a good place to start. This type of pain is perfectly healthy. Lactic acid is a by-product of the anaerobic energy system, which is essentially the production of energy without the presence of oxygen. This usually occurs when performing short and intense bursts of exercise, for example weightlifting or sprinting. Neither a reason, nor an excuse to back-off your training.

DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) is the dull ache one can feel the day after a tough training session, or from movements your body is not used to. Usually suffered by a novice, as fitness levels improve and the body adapts through the Repeated Bout Effect of exercise, this will reduce.

Stiffness of a muscle or joint. This type of pain can be a symptom of a potentially bigger problem, being a mechanism whereby your body signals there is something wrong with the system. A good example might be pain experienced after a day of sitting in a bad postural position. Such pain requires proper attention and action, usually at quite a granular level to establish and deal with the root of the problem, most likely in the areas of flexibility and mobility. For example, if your shoulders feel tight, or there is any impingement in your full range of movement, then painkillers or ibuprofen gels may only mask the problem rather than fully addressing it. Some focus may be required on stretching out all the different angles of the muscle. While the pain or stiffness may be in the shoulder it might be linked to issues in the elbow, wrist or spine. Connectivity requires addressing all the aspects of the joint or muscle, looking both up and downstream from the point of aggravation. What will probably be required will be focus on stretching and forcing the muscle to relax, then on improving how you move the joint or muscle, making sure that it is efficient and that there is no compromise in any of your movements. It is advisable to seek professional advice on an individual basis.

Sharp stabbing pain. This is usually the sign of a strain or injury to a muscle, ligament or joint and is very painful. I have experienced this first hand when straining my lower back. The jolt is unmistakable and often poleaxing in agony. Accident, or inattention to form and movement is the usual culprit. The best response is to first rest and then follow the same procedure as in point the previous point: address your flexibility and ensure you recover the full range of movement of each joint without impingement while also making sure you are moving freely too. Experience of this type of pain will also drill home the importance of the mantra: form over weight every time to minimise your risk of injury.

Fear of pain can often put people off training, but rather than dreading it, just work through it. The right type of pain can help you gain your physical potential and in time may actually become a welcome feeling of progress.

Note: If in doubt about what kind of pain you are experiencing always consult with a doctor or medical professional.

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          About the author

Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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