Trickers: Let’s Talk About Pain
Hello everyone! My name is Magnus Kinly, and I’m a tricker and physiotherapy student from Denmark. My interest for physiotherapy started when I, like many other trickers, found myself with injuries that didn’t seem to go away. The worst ones were lower back problems and a groin injury, but I’m not here to talk about those specific injuries. I want to talk about pain in general.
Even though we trickers brag about how much body awareness and control we have, I believe that we are actually not very good at listening to our body. We can’t deny the fact that there’s a “pain/injury culture” in the tricking community—after all, one of the first questions to ask at a gathering is, “How’s your body?” Almost every day, there’s a new Facebook post from a new guy asking for advice on an injury. There are comeback samplers that make us weak in the knees, and anyone who’s had an acute injury dreams of that amazing comeback. But studying as a physiotherapist, I’ve realized that the relationship between injury and pain is much more complex than it seems, so I wanted to share some of the knowledge I have gained.
Pain is there to guide us away from doing severe damage to our tissue. When you have a sprained ankle, it hurts when you walk on it—why? Because the body tries to promote healing by telling you not to put this area under stress, so it can heal up properly. Pain changes the way we move, and maybe it has even defined the way you trick. Perhaps you started to do a lot of swings because your other knee or ankle hurt. Maybe you started focusing on style instead of power moves, because they hurt. Maybe you only do round kick variations and never shurikens because shurikens rip up your groin. Can you think of any tricks that you used to do but never do anymore, even though your pain is gone?
First and foremost, it’s important to know that the perception of pain is controlled by your brain. No brain, no pain. We have receptors all over our body that react to different kinds of damage¹ (temperature, mechanical, and chemical) and send signals of danger to our brain (Schibye & Klausen). The unpleasant feeling of pain does not occur before our brain reacts to those signals.
For example, maybe you’ve heard stories about people in war who did amazing things while their intestines were basically lying on the ground. In that situation, their pain receptors are firing away, but because the brain is judging that survival is the most important thing, the signals won’t reach the brain, and no pain is felt² (Butler & Moseley). It is afterwards, when things have settled down, that you start to feel the pain, because that’s when the healing process begins. Maybe you’ve even experienced a light version of this at a session—it’s in the aftermath, when your banger playlist stops and you pack up your stuff, that you actually feel the impact on your body.
Pain is also dependent on context, not just the amount of tissue damage. Let’s say you have a huge performance coming up. It can be a tricking show, gathering, battle, whatever—something you care about. If you get injured beforehand, even though the physical damage to your body may not be that bad, the brain takes all your thoughts into consideration, and thus the pain may feel much worse³ (Jensen, Dahl & Arendt-Nielsen). For a tricker, the feet are a pretty essential part of our sport, so an ankle sprain for us may feel way worse than for a professional e-sport player. The e-sport player is not dependent on his feet in the same way we are, so his pain may not feel as bad, even though it’s the same tissue damage. That’s one of the reasons why you should never underestimate someone’s pain, even though the actual damage may not seem crucial. It’s a personal experience. If you feel pain, you feel pain.
But what about chronic pain? Picture this: after three hours of training, your mind is fried and you can’t focus. But for some reason, you still go for a corksnapu, and you get yourself an injury. Hallelujah. You know you’ll need to take some time off, but this injury is different. It doesn’t seem to go away, even after trying different rehab techniques, asking for advice on Facebook, and waiting patiently for months. WTF? When an injury persists for more than 3-6 months, it can be characterized as chronic pain.
(To know why you are in pain is, ironically enough, a major step forward. I’ve had injuries that lasted longer than six months, but I didn’t know the actual place of damage. I was like, “Can’t I just get that diagnosis so I have something specific to work with!?”)
So here’s how some of the mechanisms behind chronic pain work. Let’s take the knee as an example—when you receive a danger message from your knee, it goes into the spinal cord, and from there up to your brain. The signals are quite binary: they either get sent, or they don’t. This means that the strength of the signal has to pass a certain threshold, or pass a certain value, before it gets sent to the spinal cord.
To simplify things, let’s use a metaphor—let’s say that a part of your knee normally needs $50 to send a pain signal. (It won’t do it for less... Bastard.) But when you get injured, this changes. Suddenly the knee only requires $5 to send a danger signal. This means that many more signals get passed on to our brain, which creates the sense of more pain. This is a normal response after an injury and disappears for most injuries.
But when it doesn’t, things get complicated. Those knee danger signals are getting sent for only $5, but hold on... Now other signals start to join the party. Non-danger receptors are sending normal signals that now get perceived as danger signals, even though they aren’t. The signals don’t actually reflect damage in our knee, so the brain is getting faulty information. And since the brain is always there to help us, it adapts and gets better at reading these signals—a process that should promote healing, but has the opposite effect when the signals are faulty. (Don’t worry, this change is reversible.) All of this means that even though you are experiencing pain after six months, there may not be as much actual tissue damage as you think⁴ (Butler & Moseley).
But even if the actual damage isn’t so bad, the pain itself is real—never forget that. So don’t rush back into those corksnapu attempts. Take it slow, listen to your body. And if you can, I recommend seeking help from a professional. I know not every country has free healthcare, so if you find yourself in a tight spot with money, you could try to learn about it on your own. A great place to start would be the book Explain Pain by David S. Butler and G. Lorimer Moseley. I highly recommend it.
Lastly, remember that this is a very simplified explanation. Pain is a very complex thing,⁵ and there isn’t always an easy explanation for why it’s there or when it will go away. But understanding and respecting that complexity is the first step toward getting back to tricking pain-free. So go see what a health professional thinks, do some reading yourself, and lastly, GET SOME SLEEP! Good luck on your comeback!
- Also see https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/pain-brain
- Also see http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/dailydose/12/03/stress.block.pain/index.html
- For more on the mind-body connection and pain perception, check out the placebo effect: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-power-of-the-placebo-effect
- For related phenomena, see https://www.instituteforchronicpain.org/understanding-chronic-pain/what-is-chronic-pain/central-sensitization
- A good illustration of pain’s complexity, found by Magnus! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zv6RPoVZx9M
- Butler, D. S., & Moseley, G. L. Explain pain. Adelaide: Noigroup Publications; 2003.
- Schibye, Bente og Klausen, Klaus. Menneskets fysiologi. 3. udgave. FADL’s Forlag; 2011.
- Smerter : baggrund, evidens og behandling. 3rd ed. Kbh.: FADL; 2013.