How the Brain Heals
Injuredtriathletes can often take advantage of their healing time to increase their efforts in one or two disciplines that don’t aggravate the injury. Nonetheless, pain is complex and it is important to know that feeling some pain doesn’t require stopping activity. Rehabilitation that necessitates training with some pain might not only be acceptable but necessary. The challenge for triathletes is to know when to persist through rehabilitative pain and when to avoid it. To help make this decision we need to understand more about pain in general.
Pain is the brain’s response to a perceived threat. It is created by the brain from information the body, senses, emotions and environment provide. Following an injury, pain usually restricts our movements to protect an injured area and encourage healing. However, even after that healing has occurred, we are often left with a sensitized pain alarm system.
In this state, the body is still trying to protect itself from what the brain senses to be further damage. The pain felt at that point is a poor ref lection of any residual tissue injury. This is because pain management is a learned habit. Our threshold for feeling pain can decrease even if we have a high pain tolerance. This is an issue for many triathletes who can tolerate a great deal of pain – their tolerance is high, but their threshold is lowered.
A lowered threshold to pain is like having an overly sensitized fire alarm. Alarms aren’t meant to tell you what the problem is, just that there might be a problem. The brain’s pain alarm will still go off even though the trigger for the pain episode is long gone. Pain and damage should never be viewed as having a direct relationship with each other. People born without a leg can feel pain in a foot that has never existed. Many hard working triathletes have experienced broken bones, stress fractures or torn ligaments without feeling pain.
This complex relationship between the perception of pain and tissue damage can be exploited for training and rehabilitation.