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NOV 13, 2023

The Paradox of Pain During Exercise - A Guide to Understanding and Harnessing Discomfort

Pain has got a bad rap but it’s actually a complex experience involving sensory and emotional components. So are there in fact benefits and uses to pain?

Read time: 5 minutes

Pain is undesirable, right? I mean, when we talk about things being a nuisance or an irritation we say it’s “a pain.” As such, it’s got a bad rap. When in reality, pain is a complex experience involving sensory and emotional components. It's the body's way of signaling that something is wrong or amiss. And when it comes to exercise, pain serves as a critical communication tool, informing us about our physical limits and the state of our body.

When we exercise, our bodies undergo stress, causing physiological changes. And pain receptors, or nociceptors, get activated by extreme pressure or temperature, chemical changes, or tissue damage. These receptors send signals through the spinal cord to the brain, where the sensation of pain is interpreted. Usually resulting in a vocal outburst, a knee-jerk reaction pulling away, and – depending on your personality – potentially a lot of swearing and shouting.

Pain as a Guardian: The Benefits

The truth is, pain acts as a guardian, alerting us to potential harm. It's a part of the body's intricate alarm system, urging us to pay attention to what we’re undergoing.

“For a time, physicians even referred to pain as “the fifth vital sign,” because it can be important to understanding the state of a person’s health and point to the presence of disease. When our pain receptors are working effectively, pain is a useful way for our bodies to tell our brains when a stimulus is a threat to our overall well-being.” [Source: Pfizer]

The difference is, sometimes, we’re actively putting our bodies through pain intentionally. When exercising for example, experiencing mild to moderate pain - often described as a burning or fatiguing sensation in muscles - is common. This type of pain is typically a sign of muscle exertion and is normal. Sure, your body is adapting to stress, leading to increased strength and endurance but it hasn’t reached its limit yet. However, sharp, acute pain, or pain that persists well after exercise, is a major red flag, indicating potential injury or overexertion.

Identifying Pain

There are, of course, different types of pain. Which is why, whenever you’re admitted into hospital, they ask you to gauge the pain on a scale of 1-10, then outline how the pain in question makes you feel, and how often it happens.

So, when it comes to exercise, understanding different types of pain is crucial for both safety and effective training. Pain during or after exercise can be classified into several categories, each with their own characteristics and implications for your health and fitness routine.

Acute Pain

This is the type of pain you feel immediately during or after exercise. Think of it as your body's immediate reaction to something not being right. For example, if you lift too heavy a weight or twist your ankle while running, the sharp, sudden pain you experience is acute pain. It's usually a clear signal from your body to stop and check what's wrong.

Chronic Pain

Unlike acute pain, chronic pain lingers. It's the pain that sticks around for weeks, months, or even longer. This kind of pain might not be as intense as acute pain, but its persistence can be a sign of an underlying issue that needs attention. Chronic pain could result from unresolved injuries, overuse of certain muscle groups, or even poor posture during exercises.

Nociceptive Pain

This is pain from physical damage or potential damage to your body. It's the kind of pain you feel when you stub your toe or get a cut. In the context of exercise, nociceptive pain can occur from muscle strains, bone fractures, or bruises. It's your body's way of telling you that there's actual physical harm happening.

Neuropathic Pain

This type of pain is a bit different. It's caused by damage or a malfunction in your nervous system. Imagine a sharp, burning, or tingling sensation that doesn't seem to have a clear physical cause. Neuropathic pain in exercise might be due to nerve compression (like in a herniated disc) or nerve damage.

Inflammatory Pain

Lastly, there's inflammatory pain, which, as the name suggests, is linked to inflammation. This type of pain often feels sore or achy and can be a response to overexerting muscles or joint issues. It's your immune system's reaction to injury or stress in the body. This pain can be common after a particularly intense workout, known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

It's important to listen to your body and seek professional advice if you're experiencing persistent or severe pain during exercise. Remember, pain is not just a normal part of working out; it can be a signal from your body that should not be ignored.

The Balancing Act: Knowing Your Limits

Understanding the difference between "good" and "bad" pain is so important for anyone looking to improve their physical health or get in shape. "Good" pain is associated with muscle growth and adaptation. It's the feeling of soreness after a challenging workout, often peaking a day or two later (known as DOMS - Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). "Bad" pain, however, is sharp, sudden, and often indicative of injury.

Pushing Through or Pulling Back?

The key is listening to your body. It's normal to feel discomfort during exercise as you push your physical limits. However, if the pain is sharp, localized, and persists or worsens with activity, it's a sign to stop and seek medical guidance.

Seeking Guidance

If in doubt, always consult a fitness or medical professional. After all, your body can scream at you that something is wrong but to get a clear diagnosis and resolution, expert advice is everything. They can then help distinguish between the normal discomfort of muscle growth and the warning signs of injury. Remember, ignoring pain can lead to more severe injuries and prolonged recovery times.

Conclusion: Embracing Pain as a Guide

In summary, pain during exercise is a complex, multifaceted experience. It's essential to understand the types of pain and listen to your body's signals. By doing so, you can harness pain's protective benefits, avoid injury, recover correctly post workout, and achieve your fitness goals in a healthy and sustainable manner. Remember, pain is not just a hindrance but a guide, leading you towards a stronger, more resilient body.

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Written by Matthew Stogdon

Matt has been writing for two decades, across print and digital media. He is also an accomplished filmmaker, with several accolades under his belt.


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