It happens all the time. My patients come in to see me, I ask them how they are doing, and they don’t know. They tell me that they’ve been so busy that they haven’t really be paying attention to how their back, neck, toe, etc. has been doing. So they thought about it during the drive to my clinic and decided that their pain feels “about the same.” This is a pattern I see a LOT, so much so that it deserve a whole blog post dedicated to it. Here are some other patterns. Those that don’t brush their teeth spend more time in dentist offices, those that don’t maintain their cars spend more time at mechanics, those that spend more time in the gym get more swol (short for swollen, which is a good thing for the ceps [short for biceps]).
It’s the same with paying attention to your body. Turns out that those who struggle paying attention to their bodies spend more time in physical therapy clinics and have more pain. Physiologically, pain is our body’s attempt to get our attention. It is a combined effort of chemicals, nerves, spinal cord, and our brain. Pain helps us be alerted that there is a potential threat to our health, either a real or perceived threat. But what happens when we don’t pay attention to these signals that our nervous system is sending us? Think of a 3 year old who has said “Mom!” 10 times already, each attempt at getting moms attention gets louder and louder with more and more emotion attached to it. If the 3 year old is trying to tell us that there is a fire in the kitchen, then the longer we neglect their shouting the more damage is caused by the flames. Sometimes the child will shout and cry even when there isn’t physical danger (nightmares, lost teddy bear, etc.) but the shouting and the emotions feel the same to them or sometimes even worse! Our body in pain functions a lot like a 3 year old.
The benefits of paying attention to your body are twofold. Number one, as you pay attention to your body you will be aware of activities or positions that may lead to physical harm. You will learn that your back doesn’t like to sit still for 5 hours, you’ll learn your elbow doesn’t like it when you do the “death grip” all day at work, and you’ll learn your neck and shoulders aren’t big fans of stress. By being aware of these habits that can lead to harm, you will save yourself from experiencing so much pain. Secondly, when we pay closer attention our pain experience will actually calm down significantly (imagine kneeling down, giving your 3 year old a hug, and asking them how you can help them). Your body will shout less intensely and less often. If I threw in a third benefit to paying attention (I’m sure there’s even more than 3) it would be you will also become more familiar with what your body LIKES! You’ll discover that your back likes it when you go on a run, your elbow likes it when you take breaks at work, and your neck appreciates a night of yoga and meditation. When you learn what your body likes, what the pain is trying to tell you, you can do more of it! And that puts you in control and less dependent on drugs, surgeries, or other medical providers.
Before you get too angry that you are in pain, try considering pain as a master teacher, a new opportunity to learn how to better live with your body. One of my mentors Dr. John Zapanta always said that pain is the gateway to mindfulness. Pain is often the catalyst for positive health changes and increased awareness of our bodies. He put it this way when explaining this to his patients, “The most important thing I can give you in rehab is the Awareness of change. The awareness that your symptoms CAN get better and that your pain is not permanent. That your body is plastic and nervous system CAN change. Be Aware of change, the things that eliminate your symptoms or the things that bring about your symptoms, and do everything you can to continually cultivate the things that make you feel better!”
So PAY ATTENTION!
Here’s where to start
1. Try a nightly journal, write down 1 thing during the day that made your pain worse, and one thing that made it feel better. Get creative!
2. Do frequent “check-ins” throughout the day with your body. Take a deep breath, and ask yourself “How am I feeling?”
3. Try to do a body scan exercise 1 time per day. This takes less than 10 minutes and will provide immediate relief as well as make you the expert of your pain experience. For an example CLICK HERE.
4. If you are still having trouble, send me an email and we’ll talk!
McKay Murdock DPT, Pain Specialist, Physical Therapist, Mindfulness Practitioner