On Pain and Its Overcoming

Nerves are in a class of things that work best when you don’t notice them. Like floor joists, plumbing, and your car’s suspension system, we are only ever dimly aware of the existence of one’s nerves and their place in the architecture of our bodies until they stop working. And when normal functioning breaks down, so too does the trust in one’s own body: just as a mysterious front-end rattle might force the cancelation a road trip, the hot, nagging pang of a malfunctioning nerve is an order to halt. The pain is distinct from any other. Most injury and irritation to which our bodies are subjected is temporary; even broken bones and torn muscles whisper a promise of healing. Nerve pain, however, feels ongoing, interminable: less like a wound and more like a glitch in the system. The program might keep running, but with endless compounding errors. You can get used to the messages but they aren’t going away.

In the summer of 2017 I was in my bedroom reading Thucydides when I felt a spasm in my hip and a tingle in my foot. I was healthy, active, and in reasonably good and improving shape: some months before I’d pulled off my all-time best squat and deadlift (385 and 475, respectively), I could run a mile in just under ten minutes with little trouble, and I ate well. Having turned 30 that spring I had begun to think about the importance of “aging gracefully,” and I was determined to make my third decade a story of constant, hard-won self-betterment rather than gradual decline. Sitting at my desk that day, however, I knew at once that a wrench had been thrown into that plan.

The sciatica that hit me like a bolt from the blue would stay with me for the next three years. It would eventually be joined by a mysterious burning sensation that seemed to travel between my knees: always present in one, never both, the location never predictable and no known injury to point to. First, my ailments diminished my performance at the gym, but they quickly added a new dimension of difficulty to everyday life: I went from being able to squat nearly 400 pounds to groaning through 10 reps at body weight. A day of moving furniture in 2019 kept me bedridden with searing knee pain for a weekend; scarcely a month ago a random pulled muscle had me limping for three days. At different points in this span of time (when insurance permitted) I visited an orthopedist, a radiologist, and two physical therapists, most of whom shook their heads and suggested stretching regimens. The last round of PT involved dry needling, which was amazing in the moment but carried no lasting impact.

Last month, though, after being out of the gym for the better part of 2020, I found a place with a decent-enough weight room and decided to get back to work. At sign-up they talked me into personal training, which I’d never once opted for but seemed like a good idea: not only did eight months out of the game mean I probably need some help with form, but it seemed worth trying to address my mobility issues at a fraction of the cost of a physical therapist. Three sessions in, after some preliminary work on my squat, bench, and deadlift form, my trainer recommended some band exercises to address the tightness in my hips. I groaned through a few sets of silly exercises and felt a lightness in my leg I hadn’t experienced in years. I’ve been repeating these same exercises every other day with similar success, and for the first time in over three years I’ve been able to go about my life without tingling or burning in my leg or foot. It’s been a wonderful, totally unexpected change, and I suspect it also hides a more general principle.

The specialists I saw throughout the process were focused on just one thing: alleviation of symptoms. They attempted (minimal) interventions and suggested practices that would serve the singular goal of freeing me from pain, however momentarily, so I could go about everyday business with some sense of normalcy. All seemed to regard my interest in weightlifting as a “form of exercise,” something that “keeps one in shape,” staves off obesity, and kills time. All were either indifferent to or taken aback by my interest in weightlifting as a way to make oneself better, to reach the limits of and then deliberately extend one’s capacity for action, to make oneself “stronger, faster, and harder to kill.” Their expertise was meant to get people back to work, not to help them flip bigger tires for fun.

My trainer, on the other hand, is focused on my excellence. He wants me to get stronger, not only to get better at doing the things I’m in the gym to do, but to become better more generally. Of course, he’s not a philosopher: his sense of “better” is limited to the physical, to the cultivation of strength and the development of my body’s capacity to manipulate the world. Nonetheless, the mobility exercises he showed me were not merely for the sake of pain-alleviation—rather, the pain-alleviation was for the sake of self-improvement, because you can’t get stronger if the movements cause you pain.

One of these forms of expertise suggests easy interventions aimed at returning to a baseline “normalcy”; the other informs far more strenuous activity for the sake of constant personal improvement. The former might restore your functioning, if it works—but the latter strategy aims to restore your functioning for the goal of ultimately enhancing your functioning.

Apply this principle broadly. Avoid the former; seek the latter.

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