Andy Murray wins despite back pain, a classic example of how the meaning and situation flavours the lived experience. Simon Briggs of The Telegraphsaid: “Not many players are capable of winning three points in a Davis Cup semi-final, as Andy Murray did to put Great Britain into the trophy match against Belgium in late November. But to do so with a bad back – an issue that Murray revealed only once the combat had finished – was a different story again: a quite exceptional feat of courage and stamina”. Pain is not well related to the state of the body tissues (joints, discs etc) but instead the perception of threat detected by body systems that protect us: nervous system, immune system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, sensorimotor system — one only has to consider phantom limb pain to realise this fact. One of the biggest reasons why persisting pain is feared is the belief that the severity equates to more damage or something more serious. You may also consider that some cancers remain painless and this is certainly serious. Pain is a protective device that motivates thinking and action to reduce the threat and restore normal physiological activity (homeostasis); it is a need state lived by the whole person — with ‘back pain’, it is the person who is in pain, not their back.
In Murray’s case, he was quite capable of focusing on the game, his body allowing this due to the context and the significance. There are many stories of sportsmen and women sustaining injuries and only knowing when the game is finished. We also had the scenario a few years ago when Messi collided with the keeper and experienced such pain that he thought his career was over. It was a bruise and he played the next weekend. The pain was still severe at the time though, reflecting the situation and the need as deemed by his body systems that protect. It works both ways.
Between games Murray may well have felt some stiffness, but he was able to re-focus. A few simple movements to nudge fluids around, ease off the muscular tension that is initiated and executed by the brain sending signals down via the spinal cord, perhaps a few reflexive messages contributing alongside the immune and autonomic activity. Context remained king though, as it was wholly more important to put all his attention on what was required to win than to start worrying about his back. That could be dealt with later, and indeed this is what happened as Murray did what he knew he needed to do to be victorious. All those top down signals, cultivated and delivered from a neuroimmune system, which countered those danger signals coming from his back (not pain signals — there are no pain signals or pain centres) — top down signals generated from his beliefs, expectations, mastery of focus and attention, as he hit flow, that state of being utterly in the moment. That’s a wonderful place to be and not a room where pain can enter.
Now that the game has finished, familiar aches and pains will flood Murray’s consciousness. There maybe additional and new feelings that evoke new thoughts and a need for re-assessment for the next best steps. These steps will need to include consideration of how Murray’s neuroimmune system and other systems that protect have learned to react (priming or kindling), the possibility of sub-conscious and environmental cues, expectations and of course an assessment of tissue health and function. From thereon in, a comprehensive treatment, training and coachng programme can address movement, body sense, neuroimmune-sympathetic-sensorimotor interactions to name but a few. It is worth pointing out here that such a programme is not unique to elite sports people, but a modern approach to pain and injury that should be accessible to all.
Richmond is the co-founder of a pain awareness campaign called UP | Understand Pain. Together with Georgie, they are using music and song to deliver the right messages about pain, particularly chronic and persisting pain; which are:
- Pain can and does change
- You can overcome pain and lead a meaningful life when you really understand it and know what you can do