How could we ever say that feeling pain is good? Why do we feel pain? What is the purpose of pain? Could we get by without it? The answers to these questions reveal much wisdom. Let’s use our imagination for a minute, imagine the greatest athlete you know. Can you see this the person’s face? It is 100% probable, that this person has put themselves through hours, weeks and years of painful practice routines to get where they are now. Intuitively we know that. When we stand and cheer them, we also honor the years of discipline needed to succeed. We see stadiums of cheering and sometimes crazy fans, willing to pay stifling amounts, to see athletes perform. Why?
We relate to the pain and sacrifice they paid to succeed, we can almost feel it in some way. Now imagine a list of the salaries of the top-rated athletes. We also realize the importance that society places on their achievement. We say, “No pain, no gain.” Pain is a necessary element that leads to success. Let’s call this type of pain “good pain”.
What about the physical pain we feel in our bodies? Since we don’t “ask for it”, could we still think of this type of pain as “good pain”, the kind that ultimately leads to the successful performance of our physical body? It is tempting to think that the pain we feel inside our bodies is an indication of a failure of some sort, an illness, an injury, a malfunction, a weakness in our system. Is unwanted physical pain something that should be considered as evil, something to be eliminated? If we really understand the reason that physical pain exists, we might want to seriously consider that even unwanted physical pain can be “good pain”, the kind that leads to the ultimate success and triumph of our body.
Several years ago, I was eating some soup and felt a stab of pain on the right side of my gut. Over the next few hours, the pain became so intense that I was afraid that I might lose consciousness, I went to the hospital. They found that the blood supply to a part of my small intestine had become strangled by a fiber of fat, a very rare occurrence. Emergency surgery was needed, they opened me up with a 12-inch incision, explored my intestines, found that part of it had already died, they resected the dead part and put me back together. When the anesthesia wore off, the pain was intense. I was given a “pain pump” that administered morphine at the press of a button I could hold in my hand, this was a gift from an ex-president of the University of Utah (an honored medical doctor and friend that had come to visit me.)
Knowing the real dangers of an extended hospital stay, I really wanted to avoid infection, heal and leave the hospital as quickly as possible. At this point, having an academic knowledge of my body helped. I knew that the pain I felt was indicating where my body was healing and was there to help me avoid reinjury as my abdomen closed. I avoided pressing the morphine button and decided to endure the pain as much as I could. In fact, I focused my mind on the pain and with the mental clarity afforded me, I could know exactly where healing was taking place. As soon as I could, I learned how to scoot to the edge of my bed, the pain directed me as to how fast I could go as I pulled myself into a seated position. I learned to manage all the feeding tubes, IV’s, etc. so I could stand and walk around, pulling all my baggage around with on my IV rack as I went. This exhausted me and I was able to sleep. As a result, my abdomen healed well and I was released from the hospital in three days (4 days following the surgery). I considered the pain to be my friend and that made it much more tolerable.
Physical pain originates from nerve stimulation caused by oxidative stress, in turn, oxidative stress is caused by an excess of oxidants that naturally build up in and around damaged and stressed cells. The natural purpose of oxidative stress is to alert the body to the damage by sending signals (including pain, inflammation, and immune response) that activate the genes in the cells that motivate the healing processes, repair the damage which ultimately removes the source of stress and damage. The signaling generated by oxidation is called redox signaling (signaling through reduction/oxidation). When the cells are successful in their repair efforts, redox balance in the cells are restored and the pain and inflammation subside as the tissues are rebuilt, better than new.
If even intense physical pain can be a tool for healing, then what then could be considered as “bad pain”? Since pain is an indication of where the body is healing, we can define “bad pain” as the type that does not serve as a tool to ultimately lead us to the healing and success of the body. The chronic, persistent pain that indicates that something is wrong, but the body is not strong enough to activate the healing response to the extent needed to repair the damage. Things can go bad, though, when the body is not able, for some reason, to complete this healing process. Chronic persistent oxidative stress causes even more damage (excess oxidants can be harmful), such damage causes more oxidative stress, stimulating even more stress and oxidation, and a downward cycle ensues. Such processes contribute to chronic problems, such as chronic inflammation, arthritis, lupus, irritable bowel, allergic response, fibromyalgia, autoimmune disorders, and even emotional and mental problems, and so on.
The only way to turn off the oxidative stress and pain and start healing in these instances is to eliminate the stressor, if possible, and then turn off the oxidative stress cycle that will allow the tissues to heal naturally. Methods to turn off these inflammatory signals in our bodies are available to us if we choose to use them.
Antioxidants from foods, vitamin C, redox-balanced supplements (shown to reduce oxidative stress and enhance redox signaling), eating leafy green vegetables, decreasing sugars and carbohydrates, physical exercise, adequate hydration, sleep, relief from chronic emotional stressors are all accessible methods to turn off the inflammatory genes and start healthy tissue regeneration.
The mind is a wonderfully potent tool. Try this: in a quiet place relax your body, focus your mind on the bottom of your feet, you may become aware of tingling sensations or “dull pain” that indicates places where your feet are repairing themselves. Now slowly move your focus to your calves, knees, thighs, abdomen, back, lungs (breathing), arms, neck, jaw, teeth, and so on, noting any sensations you feel. You will find that you can receive messages from almost every part of your body about its condition and how it is healing.
By focusing on the signals coming from various parts of the body you can also stimulate healing. I do this exercise to help relieve my back pain on long flights and help me sleep. I focus on my back, “listen” to the places where my back hurts, make subtle adjustments to relieve the stress on my spine that helps center my weight and reduce the pain, and focus on my breathing. I find that with this focus, I can relax and even sleep on long flights. It feels like magic.
Pain is there to motivate us to make the adjustments necessary to heal.