Pain, Flexibility and a Dialogue

The Horrors of a Pain Free Life

The body is rewarded with a lot of attention for the things it is capable of doing. This praise is justified. Its strength, durability and staggering capacity for adaptation are all qualitites worthy of admiration.

The tale not often told, however, and what the body is rarely appreciated for is how it prevents us from putting ourselves in harm's way.

As much as our ability to perform amazing feats of athleticism, we are also capable of doing profoundly stupid stuff.

Running until our bones break, flexing our muscles until they tear and punching ourselves in the face until it is beyond recognition - there are many things that we can, but most definitely shouldn’t do.

Discomfort, pain and fatigue are but some of the body’s ways of telling us when we’re getting close to this realm of danger. We often see the ability to push past these sensations as superpowers, but one could argue that it’s the sensations themselves that are the true heroes.

People with congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) are a good example of this.

Stefan Betz is but one of those who suffer from CIP. If his skin boiled, his flesh was torn and his bones broke, he would feel absolutely nothing. Betz’s parents first thought he mentally retarded, on account of his extreme clumsiness.

Seeing as he didn’t get the feedback of pain or discomfort when he moved, he also struggled with refining several motor skills. He would also get numerous cuts and bruises on account of him not correcting himself when he fell, stumbled or hit himself.

It wasn’t until Betz bit off the tip of his own tongue that his mother and father suspected something else was amiss.

This behavior has also been witnessed in other small children or babies who suffer from the same condition. They will damage themselves by chewing on their cheeks and hands without experiencing the consequence of pain. 


Those who suffered from leprosy ended up with several deformities that were caused by an insensitivity to pain.

Many with CIP will unfortunately not reach adulthood. They do not get the information necessary to regulate the way they move and which risks they take. This often results in self-destructive behavior and risktaking that would put the cast of Jackass to shame.

Ignorance, it seems, isn’t always bliss.

Though many envy a pain-free life, we also need to acknowledge how truly horrifying it would be to never learn from ones mistakes.

Flexibility - what's pain got to do with it?

Going into end ranges of motion, although beneficial, is not in the body's best interest. It would rather have us survive than perform. Hindering us from going into positions where we are weaker and more exposed is but one of the many ways it tries to protect us from ourselves.

Just like how pain is an experience that prevents us from harming ourselves, the sensation we feel when we stretch is there to stop us from doing what we actually can do.

This becomes apparent when we take into account the three following examples:

Knock Yourself Out

When you put people under anesthesia, they cannot experience the sensations they should be feeling when a body part is placed in certain positions. The result is that they become quite a bit more flexible. 

Whether or not all of us could perform a middle split were we incapacitated is anyone’s guess, but we would all be a hell of a lot closer.

To experience similar effects, without being knocked out, drink one glass (or more) of red wine and stretch out. Seeing as it will suppress/alter some of the sensations, you're pretty much guaranteed to notice improvements in your range of motion.

As Above So Below

This is something you can try yourself without being unconcious or suffer a hangover the next day.

Measure the range of motion in an upper body movement. After that, do 3 sets of 1 minute of a lower body stretch and then measure the upper body movement again.

Chances are that you’re now bendier. Similar results have been observed in a study where they also found that it worked the other way as well: You can stretch your upper body and your lower body flexibility will improve.

What’s so fascinating with this particular effect is how we immediately become bendier simply by exposing ourself to any kind of sensation of stretch - it doesn’t even need to be specific to what we wish to improve.

As long as you expose yourself to a position that creates a sensation of stretch, and you don't end up worse for wear, your body will allow you to do more of what the sensation is there to prevent.


The Body that Experiences itself

To date, there is little to no evidence to support that an improvement of range of motion after a long period of stretching can be attributed to changes in the tissues.

It would seem that we do not «get» more flexibility. Rather, we become more competent at managing our experience - we improve our tolerance to the pain that stops us, and we allow ourselves us to use more of that which we already have.


In the discussion on self-improvement the recurring theme seems to be that the body should be treated as an opponent.

The sensations it provides are to be endured and overcome. We are supposed to become stronger, more resilient and flexible because of it.

In many ways this is true. We have to challenge the body if we want it to be different from what it is right now.

However, we need to recognize that the body speaks for a reason.

It talks in the languages of pain and discomfort, not necessarily because damage has been done, but because it believes that you are putting yourself in danger.

It does not always speak the truth. An example of this is how you have more flexibility than what it allows you to use. Another would be that you can be in pain way before any damage has been done, and in the case of those with CIP, you can harm yourself without there being any pain.

Be that as it may, the body is speaking its own idea of the truth.

Should you choose to disregard what's being said, the body will both speak back, and with even more conviction.

If, however, you respect the fact that it listens to you as much as you listen to it you can begin a dialogue that will be beneficial for the both of you.

Who knows? You might even come to an agreement and understand that you are one and the same.