top of page

Exercise, pain and the brain

Updated: Apr 22

Have you ever heard of the saying "no pain no gain"? It was a saying that was made popular in the 1980s within the fitness industry by Jane Fonda in her workouts. That and the phrase "feel the burn".

Science and understanding of the body has come a long way since then and whilst some people are still of that mind set I would like you to take this opportunity to PAUSE and consider what does PAIN mean to you? Are there different types of pain and what does the brain do with that information? What about chronic pain and are there solutions?

What is pain?

"Understanding pain physiology changes the way people think about pain, reduces its threat value and improves their management of it" David Butler and Lorimer Moseley, Explain Pain.

Pain is information that has been received from a receptor in the body. The receptor has collected information from the environment about a stimuli - the skin is the largest sense organ and the connective tissue system has a multiple receptors within it. These receptors when stimulated send chemical messages that travel via the connective tissue system and nervous system to the brain. En-route the messages (via the nerve bundles) have to pass through the 'intervertebral foramina' and 'exit gateways' - the openings between the spinal vertebrae. The nerves carry the electrical signals to and from the brain.

At the same time that the head brain is processing the information, so too are our other 2 brains. What other two...? The heart brain and the gut brain. According to Grant Soosalu & Marvin Oka 'mBraining' book. The function or the three brains are as follows:

  • Heart brain - emoting, relational affect and values

  • Gut brain - mobilisation, self-preservation and core identity

  • Head brain - cognitive perception, thinking and making meaning

So now all that information is processed and then we respond to the stimuli, in simple terms -

  • is that stimulus a threat to my life or dangerous to me in any way or not?

  • If it is a threat or damage then the flight, fright or freeze response is triggered...DANGER, DAMANGE = "OUCH" "PAIN".

The degree or intensity in pain can vary but the body then stores and remembers the information about the stimulus - both the sensations and response as an experience with emotions.

This can be used and recalled when similar stimulus or sensations occur as a reference point. The bodies defence system is triggered and prostaglandins hormones and other inflammatory mediators are released.

To give an example of this processing - let's say you play golf regularly, but one day you swing for the ball and you pull something in your back, which hurts and perhaps immobilises you temporarily. Your brain recognises the pain as 'excruciating' and you are forced to stop. Your brain has now 'logged' that when you go for a full swing pain happens (or can happen) and it may also associate an emotion with that such as 'fear' (of the pain) or perhaps embarrassment if you had to be helped off the course.

The next time you play golf and go for a full swing, your brain recalls this information - it remembers that a full swing triggered pain and it 'considers' what action to take. At the same time your 'gut brain' might be feeling fear from the pain, but your 'heart' brain loves golf and is saying "Just Swing"

Are there different types of pain?

In their article about assessment of Pain, Paulina Świeboda, Rafał Filip, Andrzej Prystupa, Mariola Drozd state that "Our body has a built-in chemical mechanism which can manage pain." It is a very individual complex phenomenon and there are pain or bother scales that can be used to measure intensity. They range from no pain to mild or irritable up to worst pain possible.

Pain is something that can come and go and tends to be defined as acute or chronic.

  • Acute pain can occur due to cramp, excess musculoskeletal tension or activation of the sympathetic nervous system and can come on suddenly. It is part of our defensive, warning mechanism and is there to protect us. The cause and location of the pain are usually easily identifiable and once the cause has been removed, healed or dealt with and the body recovers the pain messaging generally stops.

  • Chronic pain is different. As defined in the article mentions previously - it is "pain that outlasts the normal time of healing, if related with a disease or injury. Chronic pain may arise from psychological states, serves no biologic purpose, and has no distinguishable end-point." The duration is usually longer than 3 months.

Pain & Chronic Pain Cycle

The following diagram shows what happens in the pain cycle physically, psychologically and emotionally. Whilst we are unable to change the initial response to pain there is an opportunity to change or break the cycle.

What can I do about it?

If you are concerned about pain that you are experiencing then contract a medical professional.

There are a number of different therapies that can be used to for pain management including mindfulness, hypnotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, acupuncture, massage, kinesiology, breath work, Pilates, homeopathy, herbalism - to name a few. There are also pharmacological solutions such as aspirin, ibruprofen, paracetemol and stronger medication available from your doctors.

There is no one solution to pain, it is very much an individual choice. To find out more about the any of the services I offer contact me, or use the links below to book a session.

You can also checkout more of my blogs on pain and the brain and my interview with Claire Odd about training the brain and overcoming pain


bottom of page