No Pain, No Gain? Don’t be Such a Nietzsche!

As a physical therapist I’m in a privileged position to hear what people think when it comes to pain and getting better. Let me tell you, there are a lot of misconceptions out there and they run deep in our culture. Many misconceptions create problems of their own and are therefore worth addressing.

Here’s one: “No pain, no gain.” Do you need more pain to get rid of pain?
The “no pain, no gain” attitude has origins in the strength training realm (“push through the pain!”), the military (“pain is weakness leaving your body”), and even the philosophical (Friedrich Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”) and the religious (“the last will be first and first will be last”). I would submit, however, that these are themes of overcoming suffering when confronted with it. “No pain, no gain,” however, implies that gain cannot be achieved without suffering and pain should therefore be sought out.

Gains come from creativity and persistence which are often sparked when confronted with suffering, that’s true. But creativity and persistence may be sparked from any scenario. Seeing an apple drop from a tree was what sparked Isaac Newton to first describe gravity, for example. Ultimately, creativity and persistence come from the person and not from the suffering.

So, why is this myth so pervasive? Well, for one it’s a catchy phrase! It’s even outlasted “where’s the beef!” But, through its strength training relation, it’s also tied in with another common myth that says pain is caused by muscular weakness. If pain is from weakness then strength training should fix it. If strength training should fix it then you should push through pain, right? Well, if weakness causes pain and strength is the antidote then power lifters should all be pain free. But, they get pain just like the rest of us, I’m afraid.

The fact is that exercise is a proven method of pain relief for many conditions and when you exercise you do tend to get stronger. However, it’s not the strength that removes the pain. That’s a by-product. It appears that it is exercise’s gradual progression of movement that brings about the improvement. The organized progression of exercise is like built-in persistence, so it is often a successful way forward if applied creatively.

I don’t think this catch phrase will be going away anytime soon, unfortunately. So be creative and persistent when confronted with pain. But remember that you don’t need to seek out suffering to find them. You need only look where they originate….within you.


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