Henderson’s heel has captured the front page of the Guardian sports supplement today. The article claims that he has been told to play through pain as there is no cure for plantar fasciitis–the plantar fascia is a strip of tissue spanning from the heel to the forefoot.
In the general population this problem exists and is typified by first steps soreness on getting out of bed. The pain is often noted on walking, standing and running, in some cases being sore and stiff to begin with before easing and then building again.
The usual explanation is overload, but there is more to it than that. As with any persisting problem, it is not just about the blamed tissue, but much, much more. Similar to tendon problems, when the focus is merely on the structure, the outcomes are limited as are expectations:
“…with my heel there isn’t a timescale, there isn’t really a cure….”, said Jordan Henderson, continuing to describe how he feels, “There have been times when I’ve been pretty down because we couldn’t find the answers”.
Pain problems need to be addressed in line with our modern understanding of what pain really is, a protective device in the face of a perceived threat. The point in time when something hurts is not in isolation to what has been learned or believed beforehand, the meaning, the context and prediction of what may happen. Consider the footballer who attaches great importance to the state and health of their body and their legs and feet in particular. Also think about how these problems are discussed and viewed within the culture of football; all the views and opinions and what they are based upon. An injury deemed to be chronic or long-term has great consequences for the career of a footballer and hence the meaning of this pain is different to an amateur player or someone who does not play football. Much like the violinist who cuts their finger, this is more pertinent when they are about to play a concert — we know that pain threshold is lower in violinist due to the meaning and context. There is no reason to think this is different in footballers and their legs. What is the relevance?
Our pain experience is determined by the extent of threat and not the extent of tissue damage. How threatening to the footballer is the notion of a chronic foot problem? Very. Does this impact on the experience of pain, definitely. Pain tells us little about the tissue state, but much about how the brain is predicting what the sensory input (about the body and the environment) is meaning based on what is thought and believed. Already you should be seeing how the ‘treatment’ of such a problem needs more than local interventions to change the way in which the body-brain-environment interactions are manifesting as pain, in this case in Henderson’s heel.
We are designed to change and hence pain can and does change when you understand it and take the wisest and healthiest action. This action goes upstream of where the pain is felt.
Where do we feel pain? In our body, because this is where we perceive our actions, largely created by brain networks and body systems, yet none in isolation and none predominating. All are vital to have a sense of what is happening right now. And what is happening right now? Our reality in any given moment is created by the sum of all the activity in our body and brain within a certain context. This incorporates habits and associations that create the backdrop for prediction; e.g./ Henderson arrives at the training ground, and even at the thought of running around, the systems that protect us are engaging and priming in preparation so that when he begins to run, threat is assumed based on what is known, what has been and what could be. Result, pain in the heel.
Now, of course there can be an inflammatory response as well, and this may well have been detected on various scans. However, there are different inflammatory mechanisms, the one we know well from injury: think of a sprained ankle; and then neurogenic inflammation that is a feature of on-going sensitivity, when the peripheral nerves are stimulated from on high to release inflammatory chemicals into the tissues they supply, thereby maintaining the cycle. Again, predicting that healing is required, the higher centres trigger this response, and it needs addressing, but not just locally. This is the big problem with tendon treatments currently, the focus on the periphery. There must be an interpretation of what is happening in the tissues and concurrent thinking and feeling to make the experience of pain a conscious one. There is not always central sensitisation at play, but there are always higher centres involved with a conscious sensation.
There is much more to discuss and note in relation to the points raised, but for now we can look at the principles that are important for overcoming an on-going pain problem in relation to Henderson’s heel. Considering that pain is about threat value, the over-arching aim is to reduce the perception of threat and hence the prediction of required protection. This begins with understanding pain so that the individual’s thinking is based on the working knowledge that they are safe. Safe that is, to perform specific and general exercises to nourish the body and move for health. The specific desensitising techniques are tailored to the person who feels the pain, considering the existing associations and triggers. A sensorimotor training programme works to normalise movement from the planning level to the actual execution, thereby creating a new layer of experience that forms the basis for the next prediction; the prediction of safety. Building the tolerance gradually, allowing for adaptation is key. There are a number of ways to go about this, but in essence, the programme is to be lived through the day, moment-to-moment to match the lived experience that is pain.
It is the person who feels pain, not their foot or their tendon. Their tendon or fascia is not a separate entity seeking help. They are merely the place or space in the body where the pain is felt. The biology of the whole experience sits within that that creates who we feel we are, and the richness of that experience in that moment. Hence, we must always work with the person: their body tissues, their environment, their neuroimmune system and how the sum of all of this creates their lived experience. Within each dimension, there are a number of actions that influence the whole. This is how people overcome pain — not their foot; the person. And who are these people that overcome their pain? What do they look like?
They look like you and me. They have a working knowledge of their pain that allows them to exercise and re-train on a basis of the true meaning of their pain, a feeling of safety, diminished threat, the creation of safety in situations once deemed threatening, and they match their lived experience of pain with a programme that is likewise lived, health based, strengths-based and they have a clear vision of where they are going based on their values.
Pain can and does change, beginning with understanding it.
Pain Coach Programme for persisting pain — t. 07518 445493