Pain and Muscle Memory

A few years ago I was overseas for work when, one day, I moved in a way my body obviously didn’t appreciate, and I did something to my back. It didn’t seem like a big deal, just a bit of a twinge, and I was due to start travelling home the next day, so I just ignored the pain, packed and went to bed.

pain muscle memory

The next morning, it hurt a lot more. But still, I was about to start a long journey home, so what can you do? I just headed to the airport to start the two-flight trip home.

By the time I got to my transit destination, one flight in, I was starting to feel a bit of rising desperation. It had become very painful, and I was supposed to have a long layover while I waited for my next flight. I went to the transit counter and begged to be put on an earlier flight. There was a spare seat on a flight about to leave, and they graciously made the switch for me so I could get home earlier.

I spent that final eight hour flight home just barely holding back tears. The muscles in my back had, over the preceding hours, progressively seized up more and more around the site of the injury, to the point where the slightest breath was near agony.

We landed, and somehow, through gritted teeth, I got myself and my bags into a taxi and home, where I immediately dropped my bags, gingerly lay down on the couch and texted my sister to please come and help me.

It ended up taking a week of heavy-duty medication and sleeping sitting up to get my muscles to relax enough to get back to normal.

It was bad, but that was the end of it. It was an injury, it healed.

My brain knew that was the story. But apparently, my body didn’t.

Recently, I had a half-day video meeting crouched a little too awkwardly over a laptop, and by the end of it, my upper back was just a bit sore, as anyone’s would be. Such a ridiculously minor thing.

However, over the coming days, something strange happened. The muscles in my upper back started to lock up a bit, to the point that it started becoming painful to do normal everyday things. What on earth?

I went to the physio, who did his thing and sorted it out. He said there was actually nothing wrong with it – nothing damaged, nothing pinched, nothing out of place.

But, he said, my muscles remembered what happened last time.

They remembered that injury. They remembered how bad it had got, and how much they had had to lock up to protect the site of the injury last time.

And so that little bit of strain from that long meeting had triggered that muscle memory.

Because of the pain they had experienced in the past, my muscles had perceived what had happened this time as worse than it really was, and started to shut things down as a a protective overreaction.

Wow, I thought. Doesn’t that just tell a bigger story?

How often do we perceive a situation in our present through the lens of our past pain? 

How often do we overreact, or shut down, when there isn’t even a real issue that we need to protect ourselves from?

How often does a situation that’s actually just a bit of stretch and strain feel like an injury inflicted?

So what can we do to prevent muscle memory from the past making our present feel more painful than it needs to be?

As I’ve written before, sometimes it’s not enough to just listen to our emotions uncritically. We need to be deliberate in managing our head and heart. We want to respond to the present situation, not react to a previous one.

To help ourselves do that, when we feel a strong reaction to the situation, we can ask questions like:

Am I sure that the strength of my feelings matches the severity of the situation?

Do I think that most other people would have the same response to this?

Could this be reminding me of anything else that has been painful for me in the past? 

Is there unresolved pain from past situations – whether similar or different – that could be increasing the strength of my feelings or reaction to this situation?

At the same time, just like an old untreated physical injury needs a medical professional to deal with it, sometimes old lenses of unhealed pain need a professional therapist to help us deal with it and leave it in the past.

Even better, we can be deliberate about accessing the professional skills of a therapist to navigate painful situation as they arise, so that they don’t crystallise into unhelpful long-term lenses.


In all of these way, we can not just be lead by our reactions, but be deliberate in crafting our responses, and, further, in navigating and resolving painful experiences so that they no longer distort our future perceptions.