Note: I am not a doctor, physical therapist, personal trainer, or nutritionist. Any thoughts in this post are observations of an ordinary person who is concerned about his health.
This topic was derived from some of my experiences this week. I got to thinking about pain and how we do or do not treat it. I love sports, but I am by no means an athlete. I am not sure if my feelings and experiences on this topic are something normal to me, to guys in general or to anyone who is involved in sports regardless of gender. Growing up, I always believe that to express that I was in pain was a form of weakness and that admitting it somehow made me less than a man. I had believed that a person cannot progress without pain. We even hear the term "no pain, no gain" coming out of the mouths of coaches, teammates, expressed on tee-shirts and other merchandise. We are taught from an early age, that pain is something to be embraced, but at the same time to not talk about it. If you were to talk about it, then you are weak or somehow less than what you were a moment before.
I have been lucky in my life where I do not have too many experiences where I have experienced true pain. There are a couple of instances, though, that I think are worth noting. Not because of anything special about me, but because it shows a little about how people in sports sometimes perceive pain. Again, I am not sure if these experiences are normal, or specific to how I perceive the world.
In the summer of 1993, my family had moved from California to Florida. This was just before my senior year in high school. The previous year, I reached out of my comfort zone and joined the wrestling team. It was something completely foreign to anything I had done before and I loved it. So, in coming to my new school, Brandon High School, I joined the wrestling team there. Let me tell you, the program there was very different from the one in Newbury Park. Don't get me wrong, Newbury Park High had a good program and Coaches Maciel and Rowe were great, but Coach Cozart and Brandon took things to a whole new level. Our practices at Brandon were very challenging and pushed me to my limits every day, and I loved it. I honestly believe that Coach Cozart believed that in order to be the best you have to be so familiar with the moves and techniques that you can do them in your sleep, so he would get us to exhaustion in the warm-ups and then start practice. This was the hardest thing physically I had ever done. If my memory is correct, I believe that the wrestling season started in November. In the middle of October about two weeks prior to the start of the season, we were practicing upper-body throws. While I was working with my partner, I made a huge mistake. One of the things that they drill into us when working on upper-body throws is that if we are the one being thrown, to not put your hand down. There are a few reasons for this, but I will only focus on the most important, which is that you could hyper-extend your wrist or fingers when your hand hits the mat. Needless-to-say, I got to experience this first hand, excuse the pun. I had put my right hand down and the middle, ring and pinkie fingers all bend back to touch the back of my hand. Let's just say I may have said a few inappropriate words. That was the worst pain that I had ever felt. Now, going back to my perception of how pain should be treated, I did not tell anyone about it. In fact, there is kind of a joke in wrestling that if something isn't broken, just tape it up and keep wrestling, and that is exactly what I did. It would not have gone over well if I had cried, or complained about being hurt. So, I got some trainers tape and taped up my hand as best as I could. I would like to say, that this is no fault of the coaches. They were completely unaware of my state and I was not going to mention it to them. There were a lot of youth in their care and they cannot see everything, especially, when someone if trying to hide something. Another important thing to know about wrestling, if you are not familiar with the sport, is that your hands are very important. it is difficult to grapple when you cannot close your hand. Add to this, that my dominant hand is my right hand, which just got injured. When my training partner asked if I was OK, I just said, that things were OK and that I will be fine in a couple of days. So he did not think to mention it to the coaches. When my parents came to pick me up that evening, I did not mention it to them. In fact, I acted as if nothing had happened and that everything was OK. I kept my hand wrapped and changed the wrapping often and tried to wear long-sleeved shirts so that no one would notice. In my head, I just thought that I had a slight strain and that things would be good soon and I could get back to wrestling. No need to make a big deal out of anything. After about a week of trying to deal with the pain, my hand was not getting better. At this point I was really struggling during practice and it was impacting my performance. I had mentioned to coach that I had hurt my hand, but did not give any details and told him I just need to rest for a couple of days. During this rest, that's when things got hard for me. Because I was a transfer I had not known any of the kids when I first joined the team. The kid that grew up in that system had known each other for years and were pretty tight with each other. With me sitting on the sidelines watching and not able to participate I felt like i was no longer part of the team. I am sure that if I had made an attempt to make friends prior to that period that it would have been easier, but that is not how things panned out. Just before the season started, I approached coach and let him know that my hand just was not getting better, and that I was going to quit the team. This was a very hard thing for me to do. I do not like to quit anything. I feel very strongly about finishing anything you start no matter how hard it was. The issue here was that I was not communicating with the coaches to let them know what is going on. I am sure that if I had the ending would have been much different. If I had communicated with my parents, I probably would have been sent to the doctor and, again, the ending would have been different. In my head, because the pain was not going away, I was not tough enough to be part of the team. Which, thinking about it now, is completely ridiculous, but that does not change how I felt at the time. Again, I do not believe that there is any fault in the coaches or my parents, I did everything I could to try to hide that I was hurt. Luckily, the pain went away sometime in December and some things in my life went in a different direction.
The second story that I wanted to mention happened when I was much older. I have briefly talked about this in other posts in the past. In 2013 after coming home from a run I was experiencing some soreness in my right shin. There was a bit of a bump and some soreness, but I assumed that it was just shin splints. I had never had them before, but assumed that soreness and bump to be related to that condition. I had just started running the end of the previous year and had heard that runners can get shin splints. The soreness was not significant so I did not think anything was wrong. I did not mention the discomfort to anyone, parlty because I did not think it was anything serious, and partly because of my mindset that it is not OK to talk about pain. Talking about pain was a weakness. After about a week or so the soreness continued and the bump on my shin was still there. I had read somewhere that wearing compression calf sleeves can help with shin splints so I bought some and started wearing those. The pain lessened significantly. As a result, I continued to think it was just shin splints and that I was being a "baby" for even considering the discomfort to be more than just soreness. I continued my regimen of running six to ten miles three days a week, playing basketball one day a week with some friends and a weightlifting program. As far as I knew, everything was OK. Fast forward a few months. My family went to Disney World for vacation during Thanksgiving break. There is a lot of walking and stress that comes with these types of vacations. We had a lot of fun and the discomfort was not anything that prevented me from doing any of the activities. Each night, though, when we got back to the hotel I would massage my shin a bit. One evening, my wife walked in while I was massaging my leg and asked if I was OK. I had mentioned that it was a little sore. She was somewhat aware of the soreness since I had bought calf sleeves and she had seen me massaging my leg in the past. I had never complained about the discomfort, that I remember, it was just something that she noticed and asked. Anyway, she had mentioned that she had a doctor's appointment the week after we got home and that we would switch it to me so that I could have them check things out, just to be on the safe side. She is obviously the smart one in our relationship. When I went to the Dr. Appointment, the nurse that I talked to did not think that there was much to be worried about since I walked in without a limp or any other issues, but since there was a little redness on the skin that it would be good to get an x-ray done. Good thing that we did, because it ended up being a stress fracture. At this point in my life, I was a father, I coached youth sports, I have had basic first-aid training while serving in the Boy Scouts as a leader. I understood injuries and how they affected people. I knew how to treat injuries and when to know that injuries are more than just soreness. For some reason, I could not see those things in me. I could not get past the idea that it was nothing. If I were to admit the pain, then I would be less than who I am. This was something I could tough through and everything would be OK. If not for my wife recommending me to go to the doctor, this could have been a very serious injury. The stress fracture was significant to the point that they called me back late that evening to tell my to get off my leg right away and use crutches. What I later learned was that when starting new physical activity that has an impact on the bones, that our bones naturally build themselves stronger. I believe it is called remodeling. What can be dangerous is if the activity is more than the remodeling can handle which can result in a stress fracture. And for parts of the body like the shins and forearms that do not get a good amount of a blood flow as other parts of the body do, stress fractures can take longer and be harder to heal naturally.
In both of these situations, my perception of what pain is and how it should be handled were skewed by what I believed was considered to be "manly" or "tough". In both situations, I could have been spared some pain and anxiety if I had just communicated to others what I was feeling and what was going on. There are experiences that I missed out on and potentially extra medical bills that I had to pay because I did not respond appropriately to the pain I was feeling.
This brings us to the main question..."Is this pain something I should be concerned about?" Obviously, I am not a good one to help be a judge in this area since I perceived some of the pain I was having as just a soreness that I should be able to shake off. Below are some links from professionals in this field. One thing that they do not mention, that I believe, is that first and foremost, is that it is important to communicate with someone that you are in pain. Whether that is a spouse, a friend, a parent or just someone else that you trust. It is good to get a gauge on how another person would perceive what you are feeling. Find someone that understands how you might feel about pain and will not judge you for expressing what it is you are experiencing. The links below are pretty good at describing different types of pain and what they could mean. The short of it is, if the pain is sharp and does not go away, then you should probably have it looked at. It if goes away after a warm-up or stretching then it is probably just soreness. And really important is, if is hurts more when you touch it, then you should really consider getting it looked at. Soreness usually feels the same whether you are touching it or not, but an injury tends to hurt more when probed.
A couple of related links