Pain in context

Over at Meteuphoric, Katja wonders:

I think pain is less important to most people relative to their other values than such negative utilitarians and similar folk believe.

One such argument for the extreme importance of pain is something like ‘it’s obvious’. When you are in a lot of pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. Hell, even when you are in a small amount of pain, mitigating it seems a high priority. When you are looking at something in extreme pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. So pain is just obviously the most important bad thing there is. The feeling of wanting a boat and not having one just can’t compare to pain. The goodness of lying down at the end of a busy day is nothing next to the badness of even relatively small pains.

Naturally, it depends on the context.  For example:

An immediate counter is that when we are not in pain, or directly looking at things in pain, pain doesn’t seem so important. For instance, though many people in the thralls of a hangover consider it to be pretty bad, they are repeatedly willing to trade half a day of hangover for an evening of drunkenness. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘that’s just evidence that life is bad – so bad that they are desperate to relieve themselves from the torment of their sober existences! So desperate that they can’t think of tomorrow!’. But people have been known to plan drinking events, and even to be in quite good spirits in anticipation of the whole thing.

It is implicit in the argument from ‘pain seems really bad close up’ that pain does not seem so bad from a distance.

So when pain is distant (“tomorrow morning I’ll probably be hungover and miserable, but tonight I think I’ll have another beer”) it seems less important.  Sure.  But one can easily flip things around, such that pain is in near mode, and pain still doesn’t seem so bad.

Consider Kelly Starrett’s MobilityWOD.  I’m working through from the beginning, and it involves a lot of static mobilization work for things like calves and hip flexors.  Holding and leaning into a hip flexor stretch for two minutes or more hurts like a sonofabitch, right now as you’re doing it, and any benefit — better posture, better lumbar stability whilst squatting, and so on — is very much a far-mode concept while you’re waiting for those minutes to tick down.  This is more than just not taking the marshmallow immediately: It’s an investment that sucks up front and, if not followed up with similarly sucky investments for the rest of your life, will never pay off.

Now, the key reason I’m working through MobilityWOD — the straw that broke the camel’s back — is that I pulled a hamstring three weeks ago running hill sprints.  Same kind of pain, muscle fascia and myofibrils stretched further than they wanted to go.  In fact, pulling that hamstring probably hurt less than stretching it does once it healed, since I stopped right away.  But that hamstring pull was very important pain, because the context was different: “Oh shit, something’s wrong, that’s not supposed to hurt!” rather than “Stretching hurts, it’s expected, I’ll be glad I did this later”.  Similarly, hangovers are not unexpected “Oh shit, something’s wrong” pain — they’re the quid pro quo for getting drunk and dumping a bunch of ethanol on our livers.

Seems to me that what’s important about “very important” pain is its semantics.

4 Responses to “Pain in context”

  1. March 3, 2012 at 17:17

    Don’t they, though?

    Though they bring up another kind of pain: the pain you feel when you do something stupid and fall/ditch a barbell/yank something in a direction it’s not supposed to go and the pain is a)minor, and b)goes away in a few days. As opposed to major and taking weeks or months to heal. And that makes the up-front pain so much better the next time…

    • March 3, 2012 at 17:25

      Yep. Hence why, after getting through a few MWODs and having Lifting Buddy marvel that I can front squat ass-to-grass with a stable lumbar spine, I pushed the ankle mobility work a bit too hard and hobbled around on a sore left Achilles for a couple of days. Stretching demands recovery too….

      • March 3, 2012 at 19:04

        I was rewarded with a full ass-to-grass overhead squat that was a PR over my old to-parallel OHS squat record.

        Nice moment, that.

        • March 3, 2012 at 19:20

          Congrats! Getting that deep into an OHSQ is an achievement in itself; setting a PR on top of that is really something special. I still have trouble getting my stance narrow enough to go ATG with a bar overhead; whether that’s due to my abysmal hip mobility or something involving my shoulders is yet to be determined. That said, I’ve worked in OHSQs as an assistance/conditioning movement after squat day in Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 programme, so lately I end up doing something like 70-80 reps over six sets. At least I’m getting comfortable with the bar overhead.

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