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Notes from a College Student: Pain 101

Notes from a College Student: Pain 101

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I'm sure most of you who regularly read my column know by now that I speak the language of pain quite fluently. After a year-long battle with a hip injury that required x-rays, MRIs, arthroscopic surgery, cortisone shots, physical therapy, acupuncture, and a crazy number of chiropractor appointments, I can proudly boast that I know the rules of the pain game. I can tell muscle tightness from tendon soreness. I distinguish muscle inflammation from simple fatigue. I know when a stretch becomes a pull and when a pull is about to erupt into a cramp.

Heck, if pain were an official college course, I could teach it. My curriculum? It'd be what any student enrolled in the course would expect: How to effectively deal with pain. Let's go over the syllabus.

##### About the Author

Track star Amie Dahnke is an English major at the University of Portland. She also holds the fastest Crystal Springs course time in UP history, and she became the first freshman since 1990 and the first Portland runner since 2000 to win the women's WCC individual championship. Her fastest 5k is 16:51; her fastest mile is 4:51.

Lesson One: Understanding the mechanics of your pain is vital. Why? Because knowing how a body part functions is the only way to figure out how to fix it. I constantly ask my physical therapist to explain what he is doing during sessions. Not only do I get to learn cool things (like that fact that the psoas major muscle is located in the tenderloin--yes, the part of the animal that's most delicious), but I also get to become more intimate and more involved with the healing process.

If I can understand the causes of my morning pain or afternoon tightness, I can be better aware of the daily actions that cause said morning pain or afternoon tightness. Furthermore, by knowing the mechanics of my injury, I can better describe my symptoms-of-the-day (which, in my case, seem to change all the time) when I see my physical therapist.

Lesson Two: Have patience. Okay, this is much more of a mantra than it is a teachable lesson. I can repeat "Have patience! This too will pass! Things will get better with time!" until I am absolutely blue in the face. However, only you--the person in pain--can finally accept and embrace that mantra, because having patience is one of those things that is a heck of a lot easier said than done.

It took me--a neurotic runner forced out of the race for six months--a lot of tears, frustration, anger, and listening to finally realize and accept that even I, runner extraordinaire (in my mind, anyway) and all around athletic nut, needed to have patience. Recovery takes time.

Lesson Three: Remember to have fun. When learning to have patience, try and try again to make light and fun of the situation. According to studies from the [National Pain Foundation](< >), physical pain can be associated with emotional pain, and vice versa. Being in pain 24/7 for eight straight months made me a moody, unmotivated, and sometimes completely intolerable person to be around. It was a state of being that my usual optimistic and bubbly personality tried its damndest to avoid. How did this happen? And how could I keep it from changing me forever?

I made light of the situation when I could. For example, I named all of the ailing muscles my physical therapist works on in my twice-weekly therapy sessions. My IT Band, a resilient tendon that does whatever it wants, is named Rosie, after Rosa Parks--because she was so resilient. My groin, which offered sharp, piercing pain every time I strode out, is named Lee, after my mother's and sister's middle names (In my family, the women have an incredibly noxious ability of pointing out things, such as hair style or penmanship, that are shallow on the outside but pierce painfully deep within). My piriformis, located right above the butt cheek, is named, possibly aptly and possibly unfairly, after my coach, Ian. You know how authority figures can be such a pain in the rear! And the mother of all painful muscles, my psoas, is named after my physical therapist's most heinous ex girlfriend. He's had his revenge upon her (passive-aggressively, of course) via deep tissue psoas massages. I think it has been therapeutic for the both of us.

Lesson Four: Take advantage of a support group. It can be tough to connect with people who are not experiencing the same frustration, depression and pain that you are. That's why it helps to find people who know what you're going through. A week after my arthroscopic surgery, during which I had a tendon completely removed, an old high school running rival emailed me to let me know she was also recovering from an arthroscopic hip surgery. Over the past five months, we've been able to connect with each other and provide support in ways our friends, family, coaches, and teammates could never do.

And last but not least, pushing through the painful experience, whether emotional or physical, always reminds me that this is a proverbial "growing opportunity."

Or as my favorite band, Motion City Soundtrack, says, "That which does not kill us makes us who we are."

Class dismissed.

Reprinted with permission from

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