The old saying in athletic competition and exercise is: no pain, no gain.
It’s meant to convey the idea that unless you feel the effort, you aren’t working anywhere near maximum effort and probably aren’t deriving much benefit.
Of course, it’s also fundamentally wrong. Pain is a sign of injury. What we want to feel when we work out is soreness. Soreness results from overuse of muscles. People who exercise regularly know the difference between soreness and pain.
No soreness, no gain.
Pain, on the other hand, is our body’s warning system. It tells us to pull our hand off the stove.
Pain provides a disincentive to do dangerous things because we know they will hurt. (This doesn’t always work. See: teenagers.)
Pain alerts us to problems with our bodies.
If your back hurts, that’s a sign of one of two things. One is that you have temporarily harmed it, say by straining a muscle lifting too heavy a weight with poor ergonomics. (Lift with your legs.)
When you do something like that, rest, ice and heat, and analgesics like ibuprofen or acetaminophen usually resolve the problem after a few days.
The other is that you have caused an injury that requires immediate attention from a health professional.
If the pain is bearable and goes away in a week, get on with your life. (But next time, lift with your legs.)
If it is excruciating or persists, you have a real issue.
In other words, the two variables are the pain’s intensity and duration. Most people understand why severe pain requires treatment. They don’t do as well understanding the effects of time.
Time is the ultimate multiplier of injury. If you allow something to remain injured for long enough, it will become a permanent disability. That is why you should see a back specialist anytime your back hurts for more than a week.
Let me give you an example of the effect of time, direct from my book, The Blueprint for Back Pain Relief: The Essential Guide to Nonsurgical Solutions.
Problems or injuries to one structure will spread to other structures. That happens because an injury to one tissue can force another structure or tissue to overcompensate. Essentially, that means the other structure or tissue gets overstressed and overworked, which leads to it also breaking down at an accelerated rate. It becomes a downward spiral.
As an example, a very common problem in the spine is called a “subluxation.” A subluxation is when a vertebra gets “stuck” out of its normal position due to a variety of reasons: an injury, bad posture, repetitive movements, and so forth. The joints become locked, much like a link in a chain can get turned a certain way and become locked up.
The subluxation in and of itself may not cause any pain, but because the joints must move to help take stress off the vertebrae and the discs, if the joints lock, the weight of the body can become stuck on the discs. Without normal vertebral motion to keep the disc healthy, it will begin to lose water content over many years, a condition called “desiccation.”
As the disc continues to lose fluid, it becomes weaker and weaker. That weakening can allow the gel that makes up the center of the disc to start to fracture. Eventually, the outer layer of the disc can’t contain the gel and a bulge is created. This bulge can then press on the spinal nerve and cause severe pain.
In other words, if you feel normal aches and pains, but they don’t respond after a week, postponing treatment could become debilitating. There is no such thing as a normal ache and pain that lasts for months.