How much pain is too much?

How Much Pain is Too Much?

A friend of mine ran into a disappointment recently. She had to drop out of a 100-mile race because her kidneys hurt for 30 miles. And she was peeing blood. Still, she came in second in the 100-kilometer (62-mile) division of the race.

Me, on the other hand, I recently walked the last mile of an eight-mile run because of a cramp in my calf.

Our different responses to pain illustrates some of the challenges everyone faces in knowing how much pain is too much.

On one hand, it’s almost impossible to exercise without some discomfort.  But as you exercise more often, you’ll feel less pain… until you push the limits some more. That’s where we get the saying “no pain, no gain.”

On the other hand, if you push hard enough, you can literally kill yourself. For example, the growing appeal of extreme sports has led some athletes to rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the byproducts from their damaged muscles overwhelm their kidneys.

So how much pain is too much? It depends on which of three types of pain you are experiencing.

  1. Fatigue

Exercise for long enough and you’ll feel fatigue: a heaviness, burning and aching in the muscles. With high-intensity exercise, you might also feel a pounding heart or a stabbing in the lungs. You can put up with a whole lot of that without hurting yourself.

The human body has evolved early warning systems that tell us to stop long before damage occurs. If you want to compete at high levels, as my friend does, you’ll have to get used to a lot more pain than the average person endures. The same is true if you want really fast improvements.

And physical therapists sometimes push their clients that high when trying to rehabilitate an injury. You might go up to a 7 on a 0-10 scale, where 10 is the worst pain you’ve ever felt.

On the other hand, if you just want to improve your health, you can start at a level you feel comfortable, maybe a 2 or 3. Gradually ramp up the intensity every week and you’ll keep improving your health. (There are limits to the benefits, but most of us never reach them.)

Regardless of your goals, if the pain increases with each repetition – for example, each step you take, or each time you lift a weight – you’re probably reaching the point where continuing is useless and potentially harmful.

  1. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

If you push yourself beyond your normal limits – or even play a sport you haven’t played in a while – you may feel sore a day or two later. Experts call this delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It’s normal. To improve your strength, you have to damage your muscles slightly, and this soreness is a sign you’re on the right path.

  1. Injury

Then there are other types of pain that should tell you to stop right away. That’s particularly true of sudden, sharp pain such as the shooting jolt you get when you lift something heavy in the wrong way. This type of pain particularly occurs in joints and can indicate that you have torn a ligament, broken a bone or done some other serious damage.

I sometimes find I can “run it off” when I get mild pain of this nature. But if the pain doesn’t dissipate in a few seconds, it generally means it’s time to stop.

And if the pain goes along with a feeling like something has snapped, or a sudden weakness, that’s a sure signal to take a break before you worsen the injury.

Remember, the less the injury the shorter the recovery. The shorter the recovery, the more time you’ll get to play.

Photo: “Pain” by Bruno Girin

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