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How Much Pain is Too Much Pain?

 

When this question comes up, it’s either 1 of 2 responses:

1st - Typically from the CrossFit athletes - “No pain is too much pain. We just push through pain.”

2nd - “Any pain is too much pain. I stop when I feel any sort of pain.“

Those two responses are drastically different. Neither is very healthy. We know that the “no pain no gain” mentality is stupid and more often than not ends up in injury. However, you have to “Feel it to heal it”. So what is the correct response?

First, why do we have pain? Very briefly, the body gives us pain in order to tell us that there might be some harm being done.

Often, this is a great system - you touch a hot object, you get a pain sensation, and you remove your hand from the fire.

But, very frequently, the body gives us that pain signal when something that isn’t harmful happens - if you go on a long hike on the first nice day of spring, your body is going to complain for the next several days. There’s no real damage done; the body just was not conditioned to that amount of work and it is complaining a bit.

So what’s the right answer to that question- "How much pain is too much pain?"

At NorCal Physio, we believe that you should be able to move and exercise without pain. We also understand that being uncomfortable and being able to tolerate a certain amount of pain is necessary for growth.

Is there a balance between those two? And if so, is there a way that athletes can find that balance?

We believe there is a way to determine how much pain is too much pain. While this is a multifaceted answer, we begin this discussion by teaching a very easy 0-10 pain scale.

Yes, I understand that this pain scale is very, very subjective.

And yes, you probably have a high pain tolerance.

So use this as a personal guideline. No one else can feel, or can grade, your pain; so whatever you feel is how you grade yourself.

Watch the video for a great explanation, but the gist of it is this:
0-3/10: That’s discomfort. Push through it.
4-6/10: Warning zone, and entirely your call. Push if you want, avoid if you want.
7-10/10: Avoid for now. No, it’s not that it’s causing damage, but it is sending bad info to the brain and probably causing compensatory movement. 

Obviously, there are exceptions.

  • If you constantly have 3/10 pain, then you need to stop pushing and seek out help. (Schedule a Physio Eval with us)
  • If your pain is a 5/10, and you don’t like it that high, then you can try this- pause your exercise, complete some of the treatment your Physical Therapist gave you, and see if that helps reduce your pain. If it did reduce pain - great, keep going! If it did not reduce pain - maybe consider stopping for now and talking with your PT about it. 
  • Pain above 7/10 is going to happen. You can just assume your CrossFit competition or ultramarathon is going to give pain above 7/10. But we expect it to happen in these scenarios and are probably going to push through that. But this should not be a common occurrence and should be followed up with a significant amount of recovery work.

To reiterate:

  • Pain is a warning sign that tells us of possible problems.
  • This scale is subjective and works for your perceived pain.
  • Exercise should be pain-free for the majority of the time. If it is not, schedule a Physio Eval with us.
  •  If pain is constant, even at low levels, stop pushing through and get some real help!
  • This is not an excuse to stop your workouts because they are “too hard”. 
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