Pain and gains

Summer of 2016 was a roller coaster of shoulder hope followed by shoulder worry. Apart from my boyfriend and my physio Pablo Scorza I mostly pretended that I was fine; that the shoulder was better and I was climbing as normal. But the reality was something different. Some weeks would go by where the pain stopped me from climbing or training at all. Most days I didn’t climb at my absolute limit and I always stopped short of physical exhaustion. Most evenings were still spent massaging, rolling, stretching, using a theracane, anything to help. And always I was worried: Was this just how it was going to be forever? Why did my shoulder still hurt? Why was the pain moving to random places like my elbow, side, neck? Was I doing something wrong? Did I have a new injury? Had the surgeon done anything at all in there when he drilled into my shoulder?

To cut an 8-month story into a few sentences: there wasn’t anything wrong with my elbow, or neck, or side, or back. Nor was there anything wrong with my shoulder. What was wrong was with my brain and with my habits. Something which is not spoken about much and is currently a hot topic for scientific research is the subject of chronic pain. 

Instead of trying to explain something I’m not qualified to explain – please watch the video. This talk by Moseley is funny as well as informative (fyi).


The basic idea is that when a pain becomes chronic or persistent, it is no longer an accurate representation of what is going on in the tissues. Do not confuse this with the idea that ‘pain is in the mind’. Pain is ALWAYS in the mind. Pain is always an output of the brain. Pain is always REAL. If you think you’re in pain, then you’re in pain. The question is… how does this pain correlate to tissue damage? And more importantly; if the pain doesn’t correlate to tissue damage how can we make this pain go away?

It hasn’t been until just recently that I realised how much of my pain was of this chronic type (all of it). In actual fact I now wonder whether I even needed the operation at all or whether I just needed to deal with this secondary type of pain. It’s true that many people operate very well with slap tears and I did myself for many years. I climbed all my hardest routes with a slap tear. So what changed? The pain response changed and unfortunately the chronic pain response was still present after the surgery.

Now that I better understand the reason behind my pain I am in much better shape to deal with it. When my shoulder started to be in good physical condition post-op a lot of what I was doing to help the pain was actually making it worse. Constant massage, physio exercises, worry, postural alterations, putting my attention on the shoulder whilst climbing, receiving manual therapy. Yes, that’s right, all the things we think are the best things to do to help the pain were actually making it worse.

The turning point for me was when I started massaging the other side of my body when I felt pain. I was getting a lot of elbow pain in the same side of my body as my recovered shoulder. I massaged the left side and in the morning I woke up with no pain on my right side for the first time in weeks. This was enough to convince me that the problem was with my brain, not with the tissues. I was paying my right side too much attention and in doing so reinforcing the neural pain pathways that are informing me that something is wrong.

Now that I have changed my perception of what this pain is and what it means I haven’t felt better.  I’ve never felt so confident in my body. It’s not a small thing to change your perception of pain. Ignoring pain is about as unnatural as holding your breath. Like the urge to breath we are conditioned to respond to pain. Pain is our biggest warning light that something is wrong and until we understand pain better we will always assume that this warning light corresponds to something real in the body. In reality, pain is not that simple: like a broken car alarm sometimes things hurt when there is nothing damaged. Or like an overly sensitive car alarm the pain signals go off at the touch of a feather.

Is pain in the mind? Yes of course. Does this mean we should always ignore it? Absolutely not. But if you’ve felt pain in a part of your body for longer than 3 months my advice is to do your research and have a think.

In other news I climbed my hardest sport route. Mind Control 8c. After I realised I didn’t need to worry about my shoulder I threw myself at climbing and had great results. It was such an amazing feeling to climb and be free of worry and especially on such an amazing route!

Comments 6

  • 03/28/17

    outstanding stuff. thanks!

  • 03/28/17

    Hey hazel,
    I have found your article very helpful, i had a torn adductor abd ut took professionals a long time to diagnose what i had as the pain was in the hip not the adductor. Left me in chronic pain and i too drove myself mad with constanst rolling, stretching and posture adjustment etc. Ive stretched my right side so much that my left side is now tight! Its also made me over compensate with my hands whilst climbing so i have eneded up spraining my wrist etc and tearing my hamstring!
    Injuries do however make you understand more about your body. Its nice to know that other people go through the same in their mind as i have. My boyfriend and chiropractor deserve meddles!

  • 03/29/17

    Dear HAZEL, I was once a professional musician (a long time ago), An unidentified injury and chronic pain ended my career - I had no idea what was happening at the time. Now (much happier with LIFE) I climb, hence have been following your shoulder trauma for some time and with A good deal of EMPATHY. It is such a relief to read this post, not in the sense that its ‘chronic pain’ and therefore everything is fixed, the brain has an astonishing ability to debilitate and there is no easy/quick fix, but for actually sharing what you’ve found OUT, it’s not something often discussed. (BTW new climbing muscles have meant I can actually play again - kinda nice). Wishing you all the BEST and looking forward to hearing about new EXPLOITS! Jen

  • 03/30/17

    Hi Hazel, Thanks for writing about this. I was just wondering; how did you find out about massaging the opposite side to the injury? Are there any good articles you can recommend reading on this? thanks again, k

  • 04/03/17

    Glad to hear that your shoulder injury isn’t causing you so much pain, and is (perhaps) healed? This idea of a neurotag becoming more sensitive (esp w backpain) is fascinating. cONgraTULATIONS ON MIND CONTROL. {SORRY ABOUT ALL CAPS, I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON W MY KEYBOARD TODAY}! XO

  • 05/08/17

    Hi Hazel, this is a very inspirational piece, thx for sharing. Congrats for mindcontrol! Your post also made me aware of bodymind.org, quite relevant to this condition of mine which is arthrosis, like cartilage completely gone in the right shoulder and other joints affected as well. there’s no real recovery possible, well, Unpleasant when still addicted to climbing after all these years… Here is what i learned living in a world of pain (just paraphrasing walter’s character in “The Big Lebowsky”), maybe it’s relevant.

    it seems that Not only there’s a kind of “system of gauges and dials” like in moseley’s talk (great speaker!) with respect to your perception of pain, but in addition the pain management circuits in your brain are quite capable of active measures. there are the well-known “endochemical” ones but also mechanical ones, kind of “endosplinting”. In my case, due to the lack of cartilage, the pain threshold was peaking when the bones touched or worse, when the bones squeezed a tendon. so the “endosplinting” in question consisted of reducing mobility so that it just could not happen, by significantly stiffening the tissues around the shoulder. I was hardly able to lift this one arm more than 90 degrees at one point.

    Fortunately, one of the doctors i’ve seen in Grenoble was just experimenting with a method which partly undid this, and then I had the chance to get physio by the congenial Neil McLean in cham. Neil is an extremely motivational person and a world-class physio, in particular he made me develop muscular chains i wasn’t even aware of, acting as “damper” preventing the bones to get too close, which made regular workouts possible again, initiating a positive feedback loop. He also practiced manual therapy, interestingly acting on zones of my body seemingly unrelated to the right shoulder (like above the left hip), with spectacular results.

    however, the turning point for me was yet something different, which brings me back to moseley’s talk. Before I started the groundwork with neil there was this orthopedist saying authoritatively that I needed prothesis (which at current state of technology means the end of climbing), there was intense chronic pain and so on, a rather dark place to be. Now this arthrosis thing also manifests itself by cracking noises at ranges of motion, and all the people witnessing this reacted at least concerned if not plainly horrified. To my great surprise, when NEIL WAS HEARING THIS HE WOULD JUST SAY “OH, ANOTHER KLONK” grin

    THIS were KIND OF EUREKA EVENTs, WHICH PROFOUNDLY CHANGED MY PERCEPTION OF ALL THIS. NOW (3 years later) I’m back into climbing, it takes active time (and the occasional analgesic) to “convince your pain management circuitry that it’s ok to train and climb”... I boulder quite a lot, besides the fun also specifically in order to work on the deadpoint precision. The latter is crucial since I still have like 10cm less reach on the right and it most probably will remain that way. It’s also a good excuse to play around with all these wooden dungeon toys just like the pros grin

    Btw our paths crossed in chalten like 3 years back, in particular at this new year party where everybody left quite early due to the incoming weather window. Fascinating patagonia…

    all the best, Krzysztof

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