“It’s just my muscles.” My patients often make this comment when they come to see me for treatment of their pain. It sounds almost apologetic — as though they think seeking help is an overreaction for what might just be muscle pain and nothing more “serious.” Any pain, no matter how seemingly minor, deserves attention, even if it is just muscles hurting. Those muscles are trying to tell you something.
Usually muscle pain has to do with an underlying dysfunction that is causing stress or strain. Trying to explain away aches and pains by saying, “It’s just my muscles,” is like telling yourself when the fire alarm goes off that it’s just a noise. It is just a noise. But that noise is a serious warning about something important and if you don’t pay attention, you’re likely to find yourself in more serious trouble down the road.
Like that fire alarm, everyday pain is a noisy warning to you that something has gone wrong. Something is inflamed or “on fire.” You can try to turn it off by ignoring it, powering through, and medicating. This approach will buy you some time, which can certainly be useful in the short term. But just removing the battery from the alarm device or putting in earplugs will do nothing to manage the fire itself, and damage will continue to be done. If you don’t get to the root of the pain by investigating and addressing it as soon as it happens, the problem will manage to get your attention again eventually, and most likely in an increasingly uncomfortable way.
Instead of ignoring or minimizing your pain, you need to get to the root cause by examining these questions:
1. What was it that ignited the pain-causing inflammation fire?
When you worry that you might not be tough enough because something is hurting, but you don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary, know that your body is not just being wimpy. It has simply been managing some form of stress for you for a long time and is now doing its best to send up smoke signals as it nears capacity. Three main stressors can push your tissues to the edge: stressful body mechanics, exposure to excessive biochemical stress through food or air, and the emotional stress of life. All three have real impact on the manifestation of body pain. When you think it’s just your muscles being cranky, more likely than not, an imbalance in one or more of these three stressors is actually at the heart of it.
Sometimes we feel pain in the muscles and soft tissues because they’re physically stressed from our mechanical misuse of them. Other times we feel pain because our internal systemic inflammation load is spilling over inside of the muscles and other body tissues, tricking us into thinking the muscles are tight when they’re just inflamed from a nearby problem — possibly not even related to movement at all. This internal variety of inflammation is likely at play when massage and stretching fails to provide lasting relief. Emotional stress is another significant body stressor and has been shown to change our chemistry so much so that it, too, actually contributes to the overall body inflammatory load.
2. What is the pain signaling? Recognize that pain is instructive. Respect it. Physical sensations are reliable clues to how we are really coping with life — mechanically, biochemically, or emotionally. Stop and consider the possible underlying message.
It’s true that much of our everyday pain comes to us from our soft tissues. This includes muscles, ligaments, joint capsules, and the points at which they all connect to our bones. Those are all pain sensitive structures and when they’re stressed, irritated, and inflamed beyond a manageable degree, pain is their best way to communicate it. When they signal pain, you are receiving a warning sign that these structures are reaching maximum capacity for one — or a combination of — the three things that contribute to the painful fire of inflammation in the area.
3. How can I stop the pain? The first thing to do is just stop. Push the pause button. It’s important to stop doing what’s feeding the fire of inflammation, and therefore pain; stop doing what hurts. Until your body has a chance to repair and relearn safe options, it’s a good idea to get out of your own way.
Next, ask yourself: “What was I doing when the pain started?” Sometimes the answer gives clues about body positioning and mechanics of movement. Sometimes it’s about what other extenuating circumstances — like stress, fear, or sadness — might have been surrounding a normally average activity or position. Strong emotional stressors can chemically amplify the body’s reaction to minor physical strain. Explore your pain triggers to learn how to put out the fire of inflammation.
4. What can I do to keep the pain from coming back? Part of taking control is realizing that you have control and can actually make a huge difference in your body’s overall health. You just need to learn how to tune in and change your behavior accordingly. All sensation is significant and rich with valuable learning moments. The body will never give you a false alarm. If you pay attention, pain should not have to become chronic or disabling.
Taking responsibility for understanding what triggers pain in your body is the most significant step towards increasing the quality of your life moving forward. You may want to seek guidance from someone who can tell you where your situation falls on the spectrum. It’s not always easy to judge for yourself what triggers your pain and how to proceed safely. Still, by getting in touch with your body’s innate commonsense to better understand what your body’s pain is telling you will allow you to avoid disabling episodes in the future.
Ya-Ling J. Liou is a pain management expert who earned her doctorate from New York Chiropractic College. After more than 20 years of clinical experience, she continues to expand and share her intuitive body care techniques. Her new book, Every Body’s Guide to Everyday Pain (Return to Health Press, 2015), takes into account the whole person, and aims not only to address the mechanical balance of the body, but also the chemical and emotional aspects that so often influence this balance. Dr. Liou lives, works and writes in Seattle. Learn more at www.returntohealth.org.