Considering Pain ‘Good’ Makes it More Tolerable

There have been interesting reports lately about the intersection of the athlete’s body and mind. Here’s another one: In a study at University of Turin, subjects’ bodies released more pain-killing substances when the subjects were told the painful exercise they were doing would be beneficial.

Writing in, appropriately enough, the journalPain, Italian researchers describe their intriguing study: They induced what they call “ischemic arm pain” in a group of healthy volunteers, by which they mean they caused blood flow to the subjects’ arms to decrease. The subjects were asked to tolerate the subsequent pain for as long as possible.

Some of the subjects were told, honestly, that inducing ischemia to one’s arm isn’t a good thing. The rest were told, deceitfully, that the ischemia would lead to beneficial muscular changes, “thus emphasising the usefuleness of the pain endurance task,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers found that the second group, who thought the pain was good for them, lasted significantly longer than the first group. Why? “When the meaning of the pain experience is changed from negative to positive through verbal suggestions, the opioid and cannabinoid systems are co-activated and these, in turn, increase pain tolerance,” the researchers wrote. That is, simply because the subjects believed that the pain was for a good purpose, their bodies released more of the chemicals that help with tolerating pain.

This finding goes beyond “mind over matter”; it shows your body can produce documentable physiological changes based on what you believe about a given potentially painful task. One of many examples of how this can be helpful to runners has to do with what’s known as the Alfredson protocol for treating achilles injury. It consists of doing 180 heel drops a day for 12 weeks with the goal of replicating at a low level achilles pain. The Turin study suggests that your tolerance for such an ambitious daily undertaking should increase if you tell yourself there’s a point to your pain.

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