Have you ever noticed that an old injury still nags at you from time to time? Even though your injury has been “healed” for some time, you still have some pain or stiffness, or lack full range of motion that you once had. Years ago I was walking down some stairs and my foot slipped from under me and BAM! I landed on my hip pretty hard, bouncing down the last few steps. I had a pretty ugly bruise that lasted for a month. Since that injury, my hip has never felt the same. Yes, four years later, I could still walk, run, and eventually squat more than my body weight, but I often had to get bodywork done to it, stretch it, and even then, I often had a hard time sleeping on it, or it felt achy during the day, but I just dealt with the pain and discomfort. So why was I still feeling pain from an old injury? How do I break the pain cycle? I still have a slight fear and am very caution when I go up or down stairs to this day. The fear of re-injuring my hip is always in the back of my mind.
One of the toughest parts about healing and recovering from an injury is dealing with the pain that is associated with the injury. Not only do you have the physical pain, but there is often a deeper layer that is more psychological as well, that we often do not realize. When we injure a muscle, a memory is created in the body. Your brain remembers what happened, but so does the muscle. Muscles and cells retain memory from past experiences and trauma. Yes, your muscles have a memory. Like tying your shoes or riding a bike, your muscles are taught how to do certain actions and movements. After multiple repetitions of these actions, your muscles remember what they are supposed to do in order to repeat the movement at any time without much thought. If your muscles didn’t remember, then you would have to relearn the movements each and every single day. Our muscle memory is linked to the brain through our nervous system, which allows us to perform these feats from past experience.
Unfortunately, when an injury occurs, the muscles remember a bad or harmful memory. The muscles will contract automatically anytime your body comes close to doing the same action that you had done when the injury occurred. This reaction is often referred to as muscle guarding. When you are injured, your muscles react differently; they want to tighten up to protect themselves so that they won’t get injured again. Sometimes other muscles have to take over the injured muscles work, as the injured muscle will not stretch out. This compensation becomes a habit and a default position is developed. You may notice that your movement is not as fluid as it used to be, your range of motion may be limited, or even your posture may be off because your body is finding ways to keep you moving without causing any more pain or further injury.
So how do we break the pain cycle and retrain our muscle memories? First, you need to allow your injury to heal and recover. Just like your doctor says; rest and do not do any strenuous or physical activities while your body is healing itself. Being patient is no fun, but it is an essential part of becoming pain free. Once you pass that acute stage, you can begin rehabilitation. Massages can help aid in breaking up any adhesions or scar tissues that may have developed from the injury. Physical and movement therapy is also great to start at this point. This is when you can start doing regular, gentle exercises of the injured muscle. If you try to exercise the injury before it has been healed or recovered, you most likely will impede the recovery process and possibly cause further damage and more pain. Remember, retraining the body is not something that is done quickly; it takes time to create new connections and for the brain to remember original pre-trauma neuronal pathways. Start off slowly, allowing the muscle synapses to start firing and promote the blood flow back to the injured muscles. As you find the gentle exercises to have become easier, more fluid, and no longer causes pain, gradually increase the use of the injured muscle. By taking it slowly, you are re-educating your muscles to work and function as they had pre-trauma. Once the muscle memory recalls how to move again in a pain-free way, the pain cycle has been broken and full recovery can be deemed achieved. The mind and body is working again in a cohesive manner, allowing you to be all that you can be.
It took me about five years to realize and grasp this concept. Last September my pain level and lack of motion became so high that the functionality of my hip was severely limited. I decided to readdresses my old hip injury with chiropractic treatment and massage therapy. I also gave myself two full weeks of rest. After that I slowly started to do some movement therapy and very gradually started to work out again, using my hip with low intensity work outs. Ten months later, I am back to feeling as good as I had six years ago, pre-injury. I am still not back up to squatting more than my bodyweight yet, but I am getting there, and I no longer have any pain, no achiness, and can sleep through the night. I have worked hard on retraining the muscle memory of my hips and hence, been able to break my pain cycle that I have been living with for over five years.
Let’s start your road to recovery and living a pain free life.
Courtney Truax, LMT is a graduate of East West College of the Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon. She is licensed through the Oregon Board of Massage Therapy and a member of the American Massage Therapy Association. She has her own studio massage practice in the heart of downtown Lake Oswego, Oregon.