Pain: Why Language Matters

Today I saw a simple discussion online about how to resolve common pain and a few very common words popped up that prompted me to stop and write out some facts on the matter. I’m hoping that my thoughts on this subject can be helpful to people who have these common words used to describe them, or who perhaps use these words to describe themselves.
THESIS:
Language matters because the language others use about us and, even more so, the language we use to describe ourselves heavily influences the thoughts we have and the story we tell ourselves about our pain. In essence, it’s a short journey from language to core belief. What we believe can affect the way we experience the world in very concrete ways; like changing what the input from our 5 senses means to us in real-time.

TWO REAL WORLD EXAMPLES: “Weak” & “Tight”
Weak & Tight are words that get used all the time by people in pain & by well meaning professionals. While they often describe how people are feeling, they very infrequently describe the causal mechanism for why people feel that way.

HOW CAN WE KNOW THAT?
Thankfully smart people have investigated this issue using the scientific method! Here is just some of what we know based on the science. Consider: People who are not weak feel pain. People who are not tight feel pain. Sometimes it’s exactly the same kind/degree of pain that is felt by people who are weak & tight. Further, people who report being weak and tight, when measured, are just as likely to be strong & loose, (LOL). So quite often the feelings we have of being weak or tight are just not reliable sources of information on what is really going on with us. It’s a crap-shoot.
SO, PAIN CAN HAPPEN EVEN WHEN NOTHING IS WRONG WITH MY BODY?
YES! It’s important to remember that pain is not always & not most likely to be an issue with the structures of your body. (like short this, tight that, unstable x, weak y). Sure, those things can lead to pain, BUT none of that stuff is technically needed for pain to arise.WHY IS THAT SO IMPORTANT?
Because we know that your thoughts/beliefs about pain are some of the most important factors you can control for the affect the amount/degree of pain you will feel. Knowing the complete definition of pain will help you to remember this stuff and why it matters.
DEFINITION: Pain
“an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”

-source: The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP)

….the interesting bit in that definition for us here is “or potential tissue damage”. That means that if you think you might be in danger of damage to your body (in this case, just believing that you are weak & tight), that may be enough on its own to contribute to/intensify/prolong pain.

BACK TO THOSE EXAMPLES:
Now we know that when professionals we trust or we ourselves use the words “weak” & “tight” it can easily lead us to believe those things are true about our body, and just that belief can make our nervous system feel we are in danger, which on its own can end up leading to pain. There is a cool word I think describes this concept well.
DEFINITION: Nocebo
No·ce·bo
nəˈsēbō/
(noun)

“a detrimental effect on health produced by psychological or psychosomatic factors such as negative expectations of treatment or prognosis.”
-source: GoogleSo given this definition and what we learned about pain, we can say that using words like “weak” & “tight” is putting the person being described that way at risk for a nocebo effect; Meaning that they might end up feeling pain, weakness, or tension simply because they believe those words indicate a true negative prognosis.
THE VICIOUS CYCLE:
Using Nocebo-ic language may lead us to think we are damaged and if we believe that all pain is a sign of damage to the body, then each time we feel pain our belief (“I’m tight” or “I’m weak) is then just being confirmed by the pain. Then the belief is made stronger, and as we think “I’m getting tighter” or “I’m weaker than ever”, our pain may also increase. Its a vicious cycle…but a cycle we can avoid if we can remember the official definition of pain, and remove Nocebo from both our language and from our beliefs about our bodies.SO, DON’T SAY THOSE THINGS? WHAT CAN I SAY INSTEAD?
What’s key here is to know that the words you use and how you use them matters. With that in mind it’s ok for you to use the words tight or weak if that’s what connects with how you are feeling, but just include qualifying words! For example: instead of “I’m tight” you can use the qualifier “I’m feeling” to get “I’m feeling tight”. (better yet, add in a time qualifier like “right now” to get “I’m feeling tight right now”) That’s seems like a minor change, especially if you think it’s all just words. When you recognize that words become beliefs the difference between believing at you core that “I’m tight” and believing that “I’m feeling tight right now” is really major.

CONCLUSION:
If you’ve read this far, thanks! Hopefully what I have presented here makes some sense to you and you can use what you’ve learned to change and improve your use of language as it relates to your body, and ultimately change how your nervous system processes inputs from your 5 senses toward an outcome of LESS pain. If you’re interested in seeing some of the reference material I gathered these ideas from send me a message. I’m always happy to hear from people who are enthusiastic about science and about learning!