The Pain System #3 Shark Attack! - it's all in the mind


"On 31 October 2003. Bethany Hamilton was surfing with her best friend, Alana Blanchard. At first, Hamilton didn’t realize what had happened. She saw a grey flash and felt a short tug. But when she looked down, the water was bright red and her left arm and a large chunk of her surfboard were missing.

“I’ve just been attacked by a shark,” she stated calmly, and started paddling towards the shore with one arm." (The Guardian, 2016) 

We've already seen in previous blogs something of how the body generates pain signals chemically and electrically in response to external stimuli.

Part 1: How our Tissue Responds to Pain
Part 2: Amplifying Pain - Central Sensitisation

But our slippery-tricksy brains have the final say in any pain experience. At the extremes they can generate pain with no external stimulus. Conversely they can ignore external stimulus that is causing the body harm so that no pain is felt at all, usually when a greater threat is present - as Bethany experienced.

For the majority of us there are many factors that cause the brain to respond in a certain way, generating more, stronger pain messages on some occasions or fewer, weaker ones on others. What is useful is that it doesn't take a rocket scientist or brain surgeon to recognise these behaviours. Most of us are reasonably self-aware. Just as we can train our bodies to be fitter for purpose we can train our brains to be better at pain interpretation.


Pain Face. Finishing The Exterminator

The brain is your body's command centre. Danger messages and pain messages arrive at the brain which then processes them alongside other messages such as "there is a lion over there." Even though the pain systems in the other parts of the body can generate signals in response to real stimulus and can become oversensitised, you won't feel pain without the brain's involvement.

The brain's challenge is to construct a sensible story based on all information arriving along with the information already stored in the brain. With any pain experience hundreds of parts of the brain are involved simultaneously.

There are some consistent patterns in this brain activity but the exact parts and amount of activity in each part varies from person to person and within each person. Each and every pain experience is unique. Particularly those of my husband.

“It's the brain that makes the final decision whether or not you should be in pain”(Butler & Moseley)

Are you experienced?

Your past and recent experiences have a huge effect on how the brain interprets pain signals. Factors include: 

  • previous injuries, 

  • past experiences, both your own and of others

  • your knowledge

  • your beliefs

  • Past successful behaviours

  • Past successful behaviours in others

  • and of course those unhelpful behaviours the human resources department keeps going on about.

All pain is produced by the brain. 

No brain = no pain.  

No pain = no gain.

No brain => no gain. QED. 

In an perfect Brave New World - scientific, empirical, logical, evaluated and analytical - we would build a bank of good responses to pain. Our subconscious and conscious decisions would support and reinforce recovery, prevent more damage and maintain function. 

Humans use logic to predict the future (often badly) which enables us to then plan for future events. This gives us the capacity to identify potential dangerous situations and plan appropriately. 

Everyone's an expert.

In the ‘good old days’ there was a very limited amount of outside resources to help us evaluate danger signals. The modern era has dramatically increased this influence of others in how we respond. 

The internet has brought forth an army of experts, pesudo-experts and self-styled opinion makers, some well-meaning, others purely opportunistic. Many are unhelpful. 

There is also access to a wide array of health professionals; GPs, nurses, consultants, physio's, osteopaths and chiropractors. All put their own slant on our pain stories. 

A good experience with health experts can increase your knowledge, calm your fears and give you a good plan of how to move forward. 

Alternatively each expert offers his own opinion, you receive lots of conflicting advice causing doubt, increasing uncertainty and even fear. The bedside manner of some busy health professionals leaves much to be desired and it is common for them to deliver catastrophising messages without meaning too which we then filter and reinforce 

“I need to strap my calf to stop it snapping", 

"My back is twisted"

"My spine is crumbling"

"I have chronic arthritis in my knee, therefore I can't do anything" 

"I must never run again" 

"My core is weak" 

The Cosmo Pain Management Quiz - which one are you?

Score 0 - 10:  The Ostrich:

You ignore your pain. You're an ignorer. The ultimate ignorers have no pain sensation and don't tend to live very long!  

There is a rare condition called congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) and sufferers are unable to feel any pain. Sadly their life expectancy is significantly reduced as a result. 

Other people have a high tolerance to pain, tend to ignore it and push on. Such people are likely to ’get away with’ pushing on through many pains but they will eventually hit a pain that doesn't resolve. It's possible Alastair Brownlee has been one of these.

Push-on'ers can end up in a very confused place once the injuries build up. They can then become Yo-Yos.

Score 10 - 20: The Spooks:

Him indoors loves his spy stories, both real and fictional. A common theme is that once you start thinking like a spy setting up plays, misinformation and double-crosses then everything becomes evaluated through that distorted prism.

Spooks tend to listen too much to their pain and consequently act too much. 

"Pain is harmful therefore I must rest until it completely goes". 

"I’m not running again until I am pain free." 

In the mind of the spook pain means "damaged", no pain means "healed".

"It hurts a lot so I will tape it to stop it breaking." 

"I can’t do X/Y/Z because it hurts and I will break."

Score 30 - 500: The Yo-Yos:

Yo-Yo oscillate between the Ostriches and the Spooks. They do too much, often too quickly, which leads to pain and possibly injury. In response they STOP. Everything.

But stopping training reduces the body's tolerance to load and general robustness. But they've stopped so the pain goes. Then they start again, perhaps tentatively but they very quickly return to the loading levels they were putting the body through that caused the injury with obvious consequences.

With each cycle the body becomes more sensitised, less tolerant and more fearful of pain in a feedback loop that increases the magnitude of the Yo-Yo.

At Kim Baxter Physiotherapy we see many Yo-Yos. I regularly treat runners who have been Yo-Yoing for long periods and for whom it has been many years since they have put together sustained periods of injury-free training.

The key to successful management for Yo-Yos is to break the cycle. This is done by starting with a base load the body can tolerate and systematically building up the load and training. This is easier said than done. 

Understanding pain helps reduce your fear

Fear has a huge effect on your pain experience. Anything that increases the brain's perception of the need to protect can increase pain.

Here are some common fear factors related to pain:

  • Fear of the seriousness of the cause of pain - is it cancer, is it very damaged etc

  • Fear of the unknown - not knowing what it is

  • Fear of not being believed, not being listened to

  • Fear of certain movements / activities

  • Fear of re-injury

  • Fear of delaying / preventing injury

  • Fear that it hasn’t healed

  • Fear of doing more damage

  • Fear of not being able to work, train, garden, look after kids etc

  • Fear of not being able to do race or having to pull out of race

  • Fear of injury reducing performance

  • Fear of the garden turning into a jungle or the house becoming a bombsite

  • Fear of pain meaning you're getting old

  • Fear that your joints are wearing out

  • Fear that this is it - its never going to get better than this and will only get worse

  • Fear of having a nervous breakdown 

  • Fear of gaining weight

  • Fear of what other's think

  • Fear of possibly having to have surgery

  • Fear of the treatment - it might hurt, don't like needles, anaesthetic

  • Fear the medical professionals won't be able to help

  • Fear I am doomed

Fear affects your mood. Your mood affects your pain. Yet another feedback loop.

Fear makes your pain worse

A study of patients post breast-surgery found that those who attribute pain to returning cancer experience more intense and unpleasant pain than those who attribute it to other causes regardless of what is actually happening to the tissue. 

The reporting of pain is also affected by social factors: studies show males have a higher pain threshold if tested by females whilst patients with an attentive caring spouse has a lower pain threshold than patients with uncaring spouses. This of course explains why my husband is so pain sensitive.

We need to train our brains to really understand pain, what it is and what it is not. This is especially important when pain persists, spreads or seems unpredictable. 

So what does this mean for you? 

It is important to understand pain and how it works. The more understanding you have of pain the better you can manage pain events. This is the art of listening when you need to and ignoring at other times. 

Understanding and practice can help you make sense of new pain events and break old patterns of behaviour. 

Hurt does not equal harm. But hurt does need to be listened to and evaluated. 

And, as everyone is individual i.e. different, this must necessarily be empirical but it can still be logical and scientific. You need to objectively evaluate what works for you and what doesn't.


Butler D.S, Moseley L.G (2013) Explain Pain, Noigroup Publications. 

Mense S, Gerwin R D, (2010) Muscle Pain - Understanding the mechanisms, Springer
Melzack R, Wal P.D (2008) The Challenge of Pain, Penguin Books.