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Pain tolerance – are you born with it or do you develop it

15 March 2014 4 Comments

My mother had a fall while working in the garden about three weeks ago, I picked her up from the hospital next day and she was sitting in a wheelchair outside the doors. I thought I’d have to help her up into my truck, but she stood up and walked straight up the the truck, grabbed the handle above the door opening and pulled herself up into the seat. She showed me her doctors report.

She had a fractured seventh rib, a fractured radius bone in her wrist and a badly bruised knee (six inches above and below her knee was black and blue). When I dropped her off at home I gave her a hug, without thinking about it. She winced a bit, it hurt her ribs. She’s eighty six years old. I called into see her last week and she was out working in her garden. I surprised her by walking up behind her, she was rolling up the hose on the hose reel. It was hard to believe she has a fractured wrist or rib. She’s not taking any painkillers.

My dentist told me last year that I have a high pain threshold because twice I have gone to sleep while he’s doing root canal work on my teeth. I just zone out and let him do his job. I guess my Mum just puts pain aside and gets on with the job.

My daughter gave birth to her fourth child in the shower at home. She went in for a shower before going to the hospital and the baby came along. Do we have some sort of special talent for tolerating pain, or is it simply attitude. My wife was doing an equestrian cross country event, when she was thrown from her horse. She dislocated her finger, remounted the horse and finished the course. She didn’t even realise she’d dislocated it until someone pointed it out when she finished. She has raced fifteen Ironman races.

I have done lots of different types of manual work over the years and it’s quite natural to have a bit of skin off somewhere on me at any one time. Right now I’m renovating another house and have a couple of deep scratches on one arm, a fairly big bruise on my hand and a cut across my calf. All of these minor injuries hurt at the time, but within seconds I was back concentrating on what I was doing.

I have had guys in my squad have to get out of the pool and find an icepack after a hand clash with a swimmer in the next lane. These things simply happen in squad sessions. I wonder if the “icepack guys” actually feel pain worse than a “tradie” on the tools. or if it’s such an event in their lives they feel they have to focus on it for a while.

I have often said that some boys got too many hugs while they were growing up. In my family if we had a fall and got gravel rash, my Dad poured kerosene on it. If we stood on a nail, he poured kerosene on it. I honestly had never seen a band-aid until I was fourteen. We just had a torn up piece of old sheet as a bandage if the wound was deep. I think a lot of kids had a band-aid on then selves too much of their youth.

I am suggesting that pain tolerance is a type of conditioning. Part of the process in preparing an athlete for tough endurance events. I suggest that the athletes lining up for Ironman Melbourne next week, and those lining up for Ironman Port Macquarie in seven weeks, start to relive some of their painful injuries, and visualise themselves handling these situations in a way that made them proud of themselves.

In order to be proud of yourself for being tough, you have to develop a respect for tough people. I believe the first step is to select someone who you admire for their sheer toughness, as a role model. Toughness and resilience are very similar characteristics.

For me to respect an Ironman athlete, they have to be able to handle whatever comes along in training and on race day. They have to control emotions, the day is full of highs and lows, the tough athlete keeps moving forward regardless of how they’re feeling. They don’t walk along talking to someone blocking the path for the athletes who are lapping them.

I don’t believe that you inherit a high tolerance for pain, it’s like courage, you’re not born with it, you choose to have it.


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