I was apathetically trawling through a shopping centre a few weeks back when the fire alarm started to sound with one of those sounds that is designed to offend your ears. A pre-recorded robotic voice then told as to begin calmly filing ourselves towards the nearest exits.

I looked around. Nobody was heading for the exits. The only thing it seemed as if the collective was doing was watching each other to see if they believed the alarm. If the mass consciousness could have made its voice heard, I think it would have said something along the lines of, "We're not buying it until we smell smoke, see flames or see a herd of others behaving as if they have."

After a few moments of everybody sizing the situation up, it became clear that the alarm was a false. A few seconds later, it's offensive droning stopped.

Alarms noises and sirens are designed to be "offensive" taking into account the frequencies and volumes that human ears don't like so that they quickly alert our attention. A nice sound wouldn't do the job so well and danger alerts aren't things that want to be done half-heartedly. I'd rather have my ears foghorned a thousand times for false alarms than be burned to a crisp. 

We don't like alarms. They are alarming. But we need them.

Our alarm system is more unpleasant and more important in equal measures. Pain is our alarm.

It is designed to let us know that something is up with us. As there are many more things that can be up with us than FIRE/NO FIRE, pain is a much more complex alarm than a fire alarm. It receives, analyses and outputs signals from and to our external senses, our internal sensors, our spinal cord, our nerves and our brain amongst other things.

Most of us associate pain with damage to tissue - bone, muscle or connective tissue. It isn't quite as simple as that.

Think of sufferers of Phantom Limb Pain where people feel pain in limbs which they no longer have. No tissue to be damaged but pain.

Think of people born with rare genetic conditions where they feel no pain even when they should. Tissue damage without pain. 

The second example, extreme as it is, points to something interesting - tissue damage can exist without pain. Working in rehab with athletes from a wide range of sports, this fact is of great interest to me and should be to you too.

It opens the door up to the idea of pain reduction being able to happen faster than tissue healing (tissues, dependent on what sort they are and where in the body they are, heal at relatively known rates). If rehab is going to take 6 weeks, I'd rather those weeks be as painless as possible.

It also opens up a door to the idea that tissue damage and imperfection doesn't have to cause pain. I'm 31 and active. My posture could be better but it needn't cause me pain. I reckon if you X-rayed my upper spine and hips you'd find the arthritic deposits in the joints, as you would in most my age and even younger. It causes me no pain. Yet some people seem to be in immense pain with the same structural imperfections.

Pain has to do with all sorts of things including:

  • structural damage
  • quality of functionality
  • levels of activity
  • our emotional/psychological state
  • expectations

Sometimes it can even be a case of faulty alarming when nothing is up at all.

Given all of this, I treat any niggles I feel a little like the shoppers in the alarmed centre. I pay attention for real signs of danger and if they aren't there, I get on with things as best I can. 

Letting pain panic you isn't a good course of action EVER. Imagine panic taking hold of a shopping centre full of people when an alarm begins. If there is a fire, leaving quickly is the key course of action and panic will not facilitate this. In their hysteria, people in large crowds have often been known to obstruct and hurt one another. Keeping calm and orderly allows the quickest appropriate action.

Stay calm with pain. If you believe there is something serious playing a part in it, quickly get it investigated by all means. Whatever you find out, stay as calm as possible. Panic is futile and possibly counterproductive, facilitating further pain.

Pain is a crucial alarm. It's not always clear what it's alerting you to and sometimes it can cry wolf but knowing these things can help you deal with it better.


Arton "Keep calm and and leave in an orderly fashion via the nearest exit" Baleci
Float Sting - Sports Performance and Rehabilitation