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Good Pain VS Bad Pain

How do you tell the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”?

Does anyone remember this picture that broke the internet in 2015? It’s the one where some people saw a “black and blue” dress and other people saw a “white and gold” dress. It was a serious debate.

Why did this “internet war” happen? It’s all thanks to a complex process that happens in the brain. The brain sometimes has difficulty interpreting the information it’s receiving (in this situation visual information). When it can’t clarify, it fills in the gaps of information and makes assumptions.

Have you ever experienced an itchy sensation on the bottom of your foot (usually in the middle of a WOD) and you can’t tell if it’s a tickle feeling or uncomfortable/pain sensation? That’s another example of the brain having difficulty interpreting information.  When we experience any feeling, the brain has an enormous amount  of sensory details to process to formulate a perception of ourselves and our environment. When it comes to pain, the process is equally as complex with biological, physical, neurochemical, and emotional processes.

Why am I talking about pain today?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you’re waking up on this first weekend after the 2021 CrossFit Open with some different sensations in your body. You might ask yourself, “How can two movements for 15 minutes cause so much discomfort in my WHOLE body?!” You’re not alone, friend. Maybe you’ve experienced this feeling of post-WOD discomfort earlier in your CrossFit journey, or maybe this is the first time.

Regardless of your prior experiences with CrossFit discomfort, I think we can all relate to that stiffness and discomfort one feels after being in the car for a long time. Usually that discomfort feels better after we get up and move around. Other times, in the case of a broken bone or some other kind of acute injury, movement is intense, sharp, and very uncomfortable. We usually feel worse after that situation, and the remedy is casting or immobility for a short period of time to allow for healing, followed by the re-introduction of movement after the specific tissue healing has occurred.

Outside of broken bones, in our day-to-day discomforts how do we identify the difference between a “good pain” (discomfort) and a “bad pain” (intense, acute injury)? I always tell my patients: motion is lotion, and movement is the key! I don’t mean performing movement under stress or tension (heavy squatting, heavy overhead activities, lots of repetitions of a movement) but rather slow, purposeful movements. This could mean: going for a walk, sitting and taking deep breaths to relax your neck and shoulders, doing shoulder rolls, wall push ups, air squats, going up on your toes while standing at the kitchen sink, or doing a couple minutes in a downward dog pose.

Pain is the warning signal our body sends to the brain.

That signal – if ignored – gets louder and louder until we’re forced to deal with it. If your pain feels better after stretching or movement, that’s a sign that it’s a “good pain” or expected muscle soreness. If it’s sharply (acutely) painful with activity and/or it impairs your ability to perform your daily activities, that’s a sign of “bad pain”.

So, if you’re sore when you wake up on this post-Open weekend, I invite you to listen to your body.  Move your body in a purposeful and low stressful way. Choose 3 times today where you will consciously stop, tap into those areas of discomfort, explore the sensations, and ask yourself, “does this discomfort get better or worse after I move?”

If you’re still having “bad pain” or intense discomfort, listen to your body, and reach out to your community. Your coaches and your friendly neighborhood physical therapist would be happy to help.

by Dr. Marissa St. Germain, PT, DPT

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