Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cartesian dualism and chronic pain

A picture from the local aquatic center's webpage, the lap pool with the starting blocks shown
The pool & blocks at the local pool
I went to the pool yesterday after work to swim some laps.  I was excited because the local aquatic center is set up in 50 yard lanes for the summer, versus their usual 25 yard lanes, and I've never had the chance to swim in an Olympic length lane.  Nothing like a little change to make me excited for a workout.

I ran into my friend Katie (who has a fantastic blog called Poems, Prayers, Promises & Politics*) that I met at graduate school orientation for our masters program, which was great because I don't get to see her nearly as often as I'd like.  She was meeting up with her master's swim team for a practice and I was just going to swim a few laps, so we didn't get to chat for very long.

We parted ways and I got in the pool.  I found out pretty quickly that I love swimming in the 50 yard lane.  It was also easier on my spine because I wasn't stopping to change direction as often.  In the 25 yard setup, I've been hitting my pain limit at about 600-700 meters (my brain and the rest of my body wanting to keep going, but literally hitting my spine pain threshold between 500-600 yards). 

Because the swimming wasn't aggravating my spine too badly, my mind wandered.  I was thinking about how chronic pain influences how I see my body, how I sometimes own my pain and how I sometimes separate myself from my body in order to be able to cope with it.  I thought about a paper I wrote for a class last semester in which I called my body an "ill-constructed flesh mecha" because of the combination of my congenital birth defects and my spine fracture.  Some days, in order to cope with what my body is doing, I need to deliberately divorce my body from my mind...hence the reference to Cartesian dualism.

This gets sticky when I'm trying to do active things.  Separating the mind and body is something that many endurance athletes do in order to be better, faster, stronger....but it tends to come at a price.  When you "transcend" your body's signals (many times marathon runners that ignore tendonitis or a gymnast that ignores a sprained ankle to compete a la Kerry Strug in the 1996 Olympics).  While ignoring your body's pain signals can make for an awesome accomplishment, repeatedly removing yourself from your body like this can make for some wicked injuries or exacerbate current issues (like my wonky L5/S1 joint).

So I tried to stay mindful of what my body was telling me because I was having a pretty bad pain day (and this was the first time I've swum laps while on pain medication).  Probably because of the long-course lap setup, I managed to get 1000 yards in.  I would have gone another 200 or more yards (1 lap equals 100 yards), but some kids jumped in my lane and started horsing around when I was at 950 yards, and I couldn't find the lifeguard to get them out (the competition pool is lap swimming only, but there is a "therapy" pool that they let kids play in).

So my swim was cut a bit shorter than I was hoping for, but I think that swimming too many more laps would have been a stretch and possibly would have lead to injury or exacerbating an already icky pain day.  I'm taking a rest day today to make sure that I didn't overdo it...I use my shoulders a lot, so get out of chairs, to limp with my cane, to wheel around, so I need to be careful with them.  Mind and body connected :-)

*Katie's blog is's about her "thoughts (political and otherwise) surrounding [her] upcoming lesbian wedding."


  1. So good to see you yesterday! And thanks for the blog love!

    1. Good to see you too! I'm going to miss you when you move!

  2. Excellent post. Keep rolling, strolling, and swimming.

  3. Is the feeling of divorcing your body like what psychologists call dissociating? I saw Kerri Strug at the Olympics and I guess it occurred to me that she must be doing something like that, but I never *really* thought about it...

    Great post! Very thought-provoking...