Are You (Unknowingly) Making Your Pain WORSE? Learn to Help Your Body Find the ROOT CAUSE
What if the FIRST thing you do when pain happens is the LAST thing you should do if you want true relief?
If you’re like most people on the planet when pain happens then you probably do the ONE thing that seems to be in our biology. It’s instinctual, habitual and seemingly benign. But chances are it WON’T get you out of pain, and it just might make things worse.
- Your knee gets a stabbing pain, folds you in half and you reach down to touch it.
- Your back seizes up and you instinctively grab it and feel around as you try to stand upright.
- Your shoulders hurt, so you massage them (or ask someone else to).
- Your elbow hurts, and you grab hold of it.
- You get a tension headache and hold your head in your hands.
- Et etc.
This first act in and of itself is perfectly natural and it makes total sense that we’d instinctively want to make contact with our pain.
It’s what we do NEXT that truly matters.
Do you REACT to the pain and fixate on what’s hurting?
Do you get CURIOUS and try to find the root cause?
The habit most of us have is to fixate on what’s hurting followed closely by an attempt to silence, comfort or eliminate the pain: maybe you take an over the counter pain killer that’s already in your medicine cabinet; maybe you gently rub or massage that area; maybe you ice it (because you probably learned the very outdated RICE protocol in middle school, which for the record I’m not a fan of at all).
When these mild reactions don’t work you might seek out help from professionals who are a little more aggressive than you: perhaps you try a deep tissue massage or a chiropractic adjustment. And while these might seem like very good ideas, if they are also fixated on the site of pain and not looking elsewhere for the CAUSE, then you’re still caught in the same trap.
Or maybe you try to isolate and immobilize the area via a knee, back, wrist or ankle brace or boot…
What’s missing from this approach?
What ALL of these reactions have in common is a complete lack of curiosity about and awareness of THE REST OF YOUR BODY.
If you seek out a medical professional for help with your pain, chances are – unless they are very holistic in their approach to pain (and these professionals DO exist, though it’s been my experience that they are rare) – they will look at/palpate and/or X-ray, MRI or ultrasound the site of pain and suggest a course of action that focuses only on the site of pain: cortisone shots, pain pills, surgery, a brace, a boot, orthotics or shoe lifts etc.
Even so-called alternative and holistic methods more often than not (in my experience, and I was one of these when I was a massage therapist) focus on where the pain is, instead of looking for the cause. If you go to a massage therapist for back pain, I’d be willing to bet that a large majority of therapists will go straight for your back. If you go to a chiropractor for neck pain, chances are pretty high they will adjust your neck.
I will say I have sought out chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists who “get” the idea that where the pain is isn’t the problem, so they absolutely do exist; but I had to weed through a bunch of others first who didn’t get it and I still see this mentality being the status quo of both western and alternative practitioners who deal with people in pain.
It’s my position that this is precisely why there are so many people in pain who aren’t getting the relief they so desperately want, because MOST of the time…
Where the pain is is NOT the problem!
Unless we find the root cause of pain, fixating on what’s hurting will likely either give us little to no relief or make things worse.
To fully understand why this is a dangerous approach, picture this:
Imagine you are babysitting and you took the kids to a playground to play with the neighbor kids.
You’re reading a book on a bench in the shade when suddenly you hear screaming and crying and the sounds of a child yelling “Helllppp!”
You immediately spring into action, following the sounds until you see…a group of 3 or 4 kids is bullying and beating up one of the smaller kids.
What do you do?
Well, if this is your body and you’re still in the habit of fixating on what’s hurting, you might pat the poor kid’s head (trying to comfort him) while the bullies keep throwing punches; when he doesn’t stop screaming, maybe you put duct tape over his mouth; and if that didn’t get him to calm down and shut up you might try hosing him down with a fire hose…
Now that you see where I’m going with this, what do you think is the proper and healthy response?
GET THE BULLIES TO STOP BEATING UP THE LITTLE GUY!
In the above scenario that’s obvious. When it comes to pain in our body, it’s only obvious when you get out of the old paradigm.
And of course, if you want to get truly holistic, then you have to figure out WHY those other kids turned into bullies. Chances are they weren’t made to be bullies! Something led them down that road. Address that “something” properly and you > heal the bullies, which > heals the little guy by default, which means > no more pain AND you’ve prevented it from happening again.
Why doesn’t everyone know this?
I’m often asked (when clients come to me and get out of pain so fast) “why doesn’t everyone do this? Why isn’t this work more widely known?”
The thing is…to find the root cause of pain (at least in my experience) requires outside the box thinking, being willing to experiment and risk messing up in order to learn what doesn’t work in order to find out what does, and along the way you must be willing to look at absolutely everything: how a person walks, sits, stands, their lifestyle, habits, stress levels, psychology, their beliefs about pain and pain relief, past traumas, anatomy, fascia, nerves, muscles, bones, alignment of all joints up and downstream of the pain…
Who has time for that?!
We live in a fast food culture and sadly, we’ve gotten used to band-aid solutions to just about everything from pain in the body to pain in our minds or hearts to pain out there in the world (the fast way is usually violent or oppressive).
I’ve made it my mission to make time for this.
At first it was partly for very selfish reasons: I spent 8 years unable to trail run, something I dearly loved to do, due to knee pain. I spent 6 of those years unable to hike, my absolute favorite thing to do in this world. None of the traditional answers for the cause of my knee pain satisfied or helped me. A switch flipped on in my brain 8 years ago because something inside of me just knew there had to be answers out there that didn’t involve further traumatizing the body (with things like pills, shots and surgery).
I successfully healed my knees 5 years ago but my obsession with finding the root causes of pain – and HOW TO HEAL from anything, no matter how “bad” – had just begun.
Call it an addiction or obsession, but I just LOVE these puzzles, and after 8 years my favorite ones are the most challenging cases. I’m committing my life to the mission of understanding the human body, why pain happens and how to eliminate it at the source as fast as possible.
Thankfully, there are now quite a few individuals who have also made this their mission, and I believe that together we will change how the world looks at and heals pain.
My approach went something like this:
I was always the annoying kid (and am now the annoying adult) who asked “Why?”
And for every answer given thereafter, “But, why that?” On and on until I was satisfied.
When it comes to pain, I ask why until there’s nowhere left to go. This is how I’ve learned everything I have about pain, the human body, pain patterns, how our habits shape our fascia, how our psychology shapes our habits, or our fascia, or vice versa.
Client story (example):
I had a new client the other day who does partner acro yoga, and while “flying” his partner his knee popped, gave out, became sore and bruised and he could no longer extend his lower leg fully. He had studied anatomy and PT practices for a while and he guessed he’d sprained his MCL.
He came in to get relief, but what he really wanted was to know WHY his knee seems prone to this (because it’s happened more than once). He’s very body aware and told me he suspected it had something to do with his piriformis (a glute muscle).
I LOVE clients like this because they make my real job easy. My goal (or what I consider my real job) is to figure out WHY my clients are in pain and what they need to do so it doesn’t happen again. I want to help people become a TEAM with their body so they can move with confidence through life.
This was my ideal client because he didn’t just want a quick fix for his pain, he wanted to know why it kept happening and how to prevent it from happening again. And THAT is what I am ALL about.
What we found out would likely surprise a lot of people (but he was already on the right track and was only missing a few pieces of the puzzle):
His left gluteus medius was definitely not firing on all cylinders. We learned that before doing anything else.
His left calf was certainly fascially restricted (which is the #1 physical cause of knee pain – not necessarily the ROOT cause).
WHY was his left glute not firing properly?
There can be a number of reasons for this, but the evidence in his fascial system was in his right quad and quad hip flexor fascia, which was at least 10x as tight/tender as the left.
He grew up playing soccer! And he leans on his right leg.
The left leg – his stabilizing leg during soccer – had an IT Band adhesed to his hamstring (biceps femoris).
When we released the fascia in his left TFL he let out some F bombs, and he felt associated pain all the way down his leg through the knee and into the foot.
His left piriformis was definitely tight and needed help chilling out.
FYI: I NEVER go to a glute muscle (to release anything) without FIRST releasing the quad, ITB, adductor and/or hamstring fascia that may be causing the brain to recruit the glute to stabilize the pelvis.
My opinion, after the session was complete, was that his left knee is prone to pain or injury due to being forced to stabilize not only HIS weight and hip but his partner’s weight in activities like partner acro yoga (especially during something like “flying” people), because his left glute isn’t firing properly. The left glute isn’t firing properly due to a low back pain pattern that is present (though he has no back pain, YET) due to such a drastic imbalance in the quad fascia (the right being extremely restricted). The glute was likely recruited by the brain to neurolgically tighten to keep the pelvis stable, and because it was on 24/7 “tight ass” duty to stabilize the pelvis it could not be recruited for its regular job in activities like trail running and acro yoga, but…because he kept doing these activities something had to compensate, and these compensations (by his left calf, left TFL and the knee joint itself) made his knee very susceptible to injury.
THE KNEE WAS THE NOT PROBLEM!
NEITHER WAS THE GLUTE!
If he had tried to focus on his glute (that he suspected had something to do with his knee) and went straight to attempts to release OR strengthen the gluteus medius or piriformis, he would have reinforced the pattern that was already present and probably wouldn’t have gotten very far, or he might have made things much worse.
This is just ONE example of how the body functions as a SYSTEM.
Isolating ANY body part, be it a joint or muscle, tendon or ligament, without looking at the REST of the body is dangerous (in my opinion) and does nothing towards healing the body as a whole. Get the WHOLE healthy, and you will never be fearful of pain again because you’ll know it’s just your body asking for help; and you’ll know how to help it.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
If you want to become your own body’s superhero and lose the pain, lose your fear of pain, and learn to trust your body so you can adventure through life with confidence, then this is the single greatest leap you can make towards this goal.
If you’re not in pain currently, adopt this mentality NOW. Before you’re in an emergency, before you lose your brain, before you forget what you already know. And then…
The next time you experience pain or an injury, PAUSE.
And practice listening to your body:
- Stop fixating on the pain after the initial instinct to go there.
- Instead of reacting to the pain or trying to silence it right away, GET CURIOUS.
- Get curious about WHY you’re in pain.
- Get curious about whatever you find out next.
- Keep asking WHY (whether of yourself, a professional, or Google) until you’re satisfied with the answer and believe you’ve discovered the root cause and can begin taking steps to heal.
- Seek out professionals who understand that WHERE the pain is is NOT necessarily the problem. We all need a little help! It’s hardest of all to see ourselves objectively. Asking for help can feel vulnerable, but it can be an incredibly empowering experience if you choose the right person.
- THANK YOUR BODY FOR TALKING TO YOU. It sounds counter-intuitive and maybe a little hokey or hippie, but when you THANK your body for sending you that pain signal – it facilitates a whole new relationship between you and your body, one where you and your body are working TOGETHER as a TEAM, instead of it being you against your body, or you against the pain you’re experiencing.
- Be grateful you have a body that talks to you and asks for help!