Why The Force Of Will Can Trump The Power Of Pills To Kill Pain

Picture the scene: your body – sweaty, tired, fragile – is Rocky Balboa. Your brain – confused, aggrieved – is Clubber Lang. ‘I’m bringing pain, Balboa,’ it shouts. ‘You know it’s coming, it’s just a matter of time.’

‘The mind and body respond to each other constantly,’ says sports psychologist Andy Barton of The Sporting Mind, so we asked him to reveal the tricks of the trade for using them both to control pain…

RISING What can we do as soon as we feel pain, to counter it?

ANDY BARTON ‘When you refer to soreness as pain you’ll feel pain. If you call it agony, you’ll experience agony. That’s why nurses refer to “discomfort”, because it allows you to make up your own mind as to how you feel instead of looking for pain. Obviously, if you’ve got a broken leg then it’s going to hurt. No amount of subliminal language use will stop you calling bullshit there, but for recurring or niggly injuries this method can make a difference.’

‘You’ve got a pharmacy in your brain releasing chemicals depending on what you believe’

RISING What about rubbing your skin, does that actually work?

AB ‘Yes: remember falling over as a kid, and before your mum could apply the TCP you’d be rubbing the painful area to make it feel better? That really does work – studies have shown that touching a painful area helps to reset the brain’s internal map of the body. Which isn’t too dissimilar to phantom limb syndrome, where amputees can experience pain in limbs that aren’t there anymore, due to the body being confused at the mismatch. If you’ve got a sore area, rubbing it will help dilute the pain.’

RISING OK, what about using another external force to combat pain?

AB ‘Music has been found to help block out both acute and chronic pain. We have associations with music which trigger emotional states. Play the Rocky theme, for instance, and your heart rate will be elevated, you’ll be excited, and it distracts you from any agony. Whatever genre you need to get in the mood – trash metal, hip hop, whatever – it’s all about making sure your internal dialogue between brain and body isn’t focusing on discomfort.’

‘Breathing exercises calm the nervous system down, helping you sleep when in pain’

RISING What about the kind of pain that doesn’t come from a sprained knee?

AB ‘Antidepressants don’t contain anything except what’s supposed to unlock what you already have inside your head. You’ve got a pharmacy in your brain, and it releases chemicals depending on what you believe. One proven theory is that we have a ‘Central Governor’ in our mind, protecting our body. So, when a long-distance runner starts to feel unbearable pain, it’s actually the brain shutting down the muscle fibres, and not the other way around. We’ve all got a second tank. I’m a big believer in the placebo effect, and if you believe you can go further, this Central Governor will allow it.’

RISING What about when we hear that deadline zooming by overhead, and we get a stress-induced headache?

AB ‘When mental pain manifests as physical, such as headache, you need to unwind and de-stress. When we’re in pain we tend to take shallower breaths, the same as when we’re stressed. We breathe higher up in the chest, so take your breath lower down and have deeper breaths. One method athletes are now using for recovery is the 4-7-8 trick. Breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, then breathe out of the mouth for eight. This calms the body and nervous system down, and can be extremely helpful when trying to nod off when pain is keeping you awake.’

RISING One of our training buddies is always banging on about ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’ – could he be right?

AB ‘Another thing we ask of long-distance runners and cyclists feeling the pain barrier is to get them to disassociate with the pain by asking them to picture themselves outside of their bodies, watching themselves, above the bike, above the track. It tends to have an effect in mentally taking yourself away from the pain. However, if you’re not doing sport but spending time in recovery, another good physiological trick is to make a mental picture of your affected area, as the brain will send blood to it, helping it to feel stronger.’

WHAT NEXT? Don’t get too comfortable. Rest is important when in pain, sitting around is not – by doing that you’re telling your mind you’re hurting. Avoid poor body language and start moving in a nice rhythmic way, and you should feel results.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.