Why Toughing It Out Can Do More Harm Than Good: Advice From A Local Chiropractor

What is Pain?

Let’s start at the beginning. Pain is your body’s way of alerting you that something may be wrong.    It’s like your body is saying, “Hey, pay attention, something’s going on here.”  It is an inherent mechanism meant to protect you.

For example if you touch a hot stove, receptor nerve cells alert your brain to the heat and you instinctively pull your hand away from the stove to protect yourself from being burned. How quickly you react to the pain signal will determine how severely you are burned.

The same is true for common musculoskeletal pain that we all experience, be it in your back, neck, hips, knees, and so on.  When you are feeling pain, your body is telling you to pay attention because something is not right.  Ideally, you would stop doing whatever is causing the pain. But what happens when you don’t stop?

Toughing it Out

When you experience pain, you have a few choices.  You can make a physical change to what you’re doing to eliminate the pain, you can take pain medications to get some relief, or you can just ignore the pain and tough it out.

Let’s say that you’re working in the yard on a beautiful spring weekend.  You’ve spent the day bending, pulling, scooping, and lifting.  At the end of the day, you are in pain.  What do you do?  In most cases, resting, putting a little bit of ice on the affected area, and taking a Tylenol will take care of it.  It might take a day or two, but most of us will go back to feeling normal in pretty short order.  No worries, it’s all good.

But what about chronic pains that don’t go away with rest and TLC?

If you are taking a pain killer or muscle relaxant day after day, just to make it through, that’s a pain that you need to address.  If you can’t sleep at night because the pain in keeping you awake, that’s your body telling you to fix a problem. And the fact of the matter is this: the longer you go without correcting the problem, the harder it will be to fix.

Let’s say that your car is making a funny noise.  That’s a signal that something is wrong.  But, instead of taking it in to the mechanic, you decide that you’ll just turn up the radio so that you can’t hear the noise any longer.  No noise means no problem, right?  Should you be surprised when a day or a week later you find yourself on the side of the road with a blown transmission and no way to get home?

Ignoring a noise from your car doesn’t make much sense.  Ignoring pain in your body doesn’t make much sense either.  The pain, like the noise, is telling you that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

What if the “check engine” light comes on?  This time you go to a mechanic, and his suggestion is to cut the wire for the light so that it won’t come on anymore.  Well, the light is off, but have you solved the problem?  Constantly taking pain killers to cover up pain, or getting a nerve block shot to stop your brain from getting the signal of pain, does nothing to fix the real problem. Yes, the “check engine” light is off, but has the problem been fixed?

I’m going to pick on guys for a minute here.  If I were to tell one of my male patients that I turned up the radio in my car so that I didn’t hear that clunking noise and cut the “check engine” light so that it wouldn’t flash at me, he would think that I was a complete idiot.  But I can’t tell you how many of my patients tell me that their back (or shoulder or knees…) have hurt them for years, but they just pop an ibuprofen in the morning and do their best to ignore the pain.  They’re guys after all, they’re taught to tough it out.

Do you see the parallel?

These are the same people who think that they are destined to be in pain for the rest of their lives or are sure that they will need a knee replacement down the road.  And if they don’t take corrective actions, their predictions could be right.  But, if you fix the pain when it’s small, you can save yourself from bigger problems down the road.

Unintended Consequences

Earlier, I mentioned that pain is a protective mechanism and that your body will instinctively take steps to protect you when it senses danger. Sometimes, those protections have unintended consequences.

Has your back ever locked up on you?  Your muscles have a built-in mechanism that senses the extent and speed to which they are being stretched.  If your body thinks that a muscle is being stretched too far or too quickly, the muscle will try to protect itself.  It will retract (or spasm) in an effort to prevent tearing or damage.  Often, the spasm will relieve itself.

But for many, the spasms become a recurring problem because there is an underlying issue that is actually causing the spasm. Until you identify and correct the underlying cause, the spasms will continue.  And when muscles are in a constant state of contraction, not only will you be in pain and lose mobility, other damage is occurring.  The muscles themselves can become shorter and weaker over time making you even more vulnerable to future injuries. Also, other parts of your body will try to compensate for the area that has lost its mobility.  This can lead to undue stress on other joints and cause arthritis and a host of other issues.

Another example of when a protective measure can have unintended consequences is in the case of repetitive movements, like those done by a factory worker on the line, a person who types at a keyboard all day, or athletes such as swimmers and baseball players.

The first few times you do a new movement, it might irritate a joint, but it doesn’t cause enough harm to cause pain.  Now, if we continue to do that movement over and over, you might feel a little bit of pain or irritation (a signal from your body to stop).  But what if you can’t stop (because it’s your job) or don’t stop (because it’s your passion)?

When the pain signal isn’t enough to get you to stop the movement, your body needs to take another step to protect the joint from the constant irritation.  At this point, a bio-chemical change takes place, and your body will lay down extra bone to protect the joint (osteoarthritis).

But, here’s another situation where unintended consequences will come into play.

In the case of your shoulder, the rotator cuff runs through a narrow space called the subacrominal space.  When your body adds bone to protect the joint, it can take up the valuable space that’s intended for the rotator cuff muscles, tendons, and bursa causing them to be pinched, irritated, or inflamed.  This impingement of the shoulder can lead to muscle weakness, loss of movement, pain and eventually what’s known as “frozen shoulder.”

These are just two examples of how your body’s repeated efforts to protect itself will actually lead to bigger problems down the road.  I could list a hundred more.

It’s a matter of mechanics. Your body was made to move. In fact, it is movement that keeps you healthy. But, when you stop moving, because of injury or pain, a vicious cycle begins— you stop moving because of pain, but because you’ve stopped moving, damage and pain increase, so you move even less, and the pain gets worse.  All the while, your body is trying to protect itself leading to unintended consequences which can lead to bigger problems.

So, what do you do?

Listen to your Body and Fix the Little Problems

If you wouldn’t ignore a “check engine” light in your car, don’t ignore pain in your body. It’s telling you something. Fix the problem when it’s small before the consequences snowball and create bigger, more expensive problems that are harder to fix and take longer to heal. Innovative Health can help, whether you’re dealing with back and spinal pain, shoulder pain, or something else entirely. Contact the local chiropractors serving Wausau, Weston, and beyond today to start feeling better and living better.