TRAIN WITH PAIN: ADAPTING TO CHRONIC PAIN
Anyone who has ever trained Muay Thai knows that it can be tough. For someone with a chronic pain condition, who faces extra challenges in their day-to-day life, training can produce a whole host of new challenges.
I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition which causes widespread pain in the joints, muscles and nerves, as well as persistent fatigue and other problems such as cognition issues, stomach problems, poor circulation, muscle weakness, and a higher susceptibility to injury.
In short, I’m always hurting and always exhausted.
The condition also causes flare-ups, referred to as “fibro flares,” where symptoms increase in severity over a period of days or even months. Flare-ups can differ person to person, but for me, they normally result in being so exhausted and in pain that I can barely do everyday tasks like brush my hair. Even breathing is painful.
As a whole, people’s experience of fibromyalgia differs; some people are constantly in so much pain they can’t even get out of bed. If you’re able to though, gentle exercise can genuinely help pain levels in the long run. Muay Thai isn’t exactly a gentle sport but I’ve found that since I started it, my fitness, flexibility and strength have all improved, and my overall pain levels have reduced. The road hasn’t exactly been an easy one, but it isn’t impossible either — it just requires some adjustment.
When I took up training three years ago, it was something that I had never thought I would do. Most of my friends had taken it up at this point, and I’d ended up going along to watch a few classes and an interclub (editor’s note: this is the UK version of a smoker). In terms of transitioning from fan to fighter, as far as I was concerned, my ship there had sailed. After the interclub though, I gave in and went along to my first class, to participate rather than just watch.
That first session was really rough. I only made it through about half before having to call it a day, and for the next few weeks I had to build it up until I could make it through the whole session.
I said that the first session was rough, but actually this applies to the first few months. As well as having to build up to a full session, there were a lot of other problems that I encountered, and it took me a while to work out how to work around them. I’m ashamed to admit it but for those first few months, I was too stubborn to listen to what my body was telling me it needed. I got injured a few times as a result, mainly from just repeatedly doing things which I knew were hurting at that point at time.
When training, it is really important to listen to what your body is telling you. There is pushing past your limits, then there is just plain ignoring them. The latter is not a good idea. There are going to be parts that you struggle with, moves you can’t do — that is perfectly okay.
Ideally, you need to tailor your training to you as much as possible. I can’t skip with a rope due to an issue with my ankle, so I jog on the spot. I can’t throw teep kicks because my hip joint gets stuck when throwing the kick. When my class does teep kicks, I use that time as an opportunity to develop my other kicks, and as a result I’ve developed a style which is based primarily around low kicks.
Of course, there are some natural issues that you will come across when you have a condition like fibromyalgia. It causes stiffness in the joints, so it’s helpful to keep up stretching even if you can’t do anything else; I try to do it every day. The flexibility helps with training, especially with kicks, but it also helps with everyday life and just being able to move.
Fibromyalgia isn’t just a physical condition — it causes cognitive issues, too. One of these issues is that it affects the reflexes. For me, they’ve slowed down to almost disastrous levels. It’s led to me being hit in the face far more than I care to admit. It has gotten to the point where I attempt to parry the punch after it’s made contact, which of course isn’t very helpful.
Due to a combination of the fibromyalgia and the medication which I use to treat it, my pain receptors are… inaccurate, meaning that how I feel the impact of a punch is incredibly strange. Sometimes the impact barely registers, and other times even light punches are able to knock me off of my feet. Within the first few weeks, I ran face-first into a really hard rear straight from a man and barely even noticed it, but a few weeks later I caught a jab to the chin and it wobbled me.
There isn’t really much that can be done about the reflexes, so instead I’m working to improve my defense. I’ve drilled keeping my hands to my face at all times, unless they’re needed elsewhere, and by trying to stay outside of my opponent’s range, drawing them to throw and miss a kick so that I can close in whilst they’re off-balance.
One of the biggest adaptions I have made is that I train southpaw. I’m right-handed, but I work as an artist and writer, so I need to protect my right hand. Training southpaw worked out to be the best course of action because it meant that my power punches, like hooks and crosses, could come from the left side. I’ve managed to make it so that all parts of my training style revolve around my illness’ limitations, but it works and I’m able to do something which I never thought I would be able to.
I mainly train for fitness; I’m no professional fighter, and I probably never will be. My body is just too unreliable for it. Every time I’m asked if I will ever fight, I imagine myself taking all sorts of hard hits, then being TKO’d by a jab. It makes me laugh, but it’s a sobering reminder that it just wouldn’t work for me.
That doesn’t mean to say that people with chronic illnesses can’t be successful in martial arts. British Muay Thai champion Ruqsana Begum (pictured right) has Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, often shortened to ME. Amazingly, she even won her title whilst suffering from a flare-up of her condition. She felt like she was going to die, but pushed through it and was able to win.
For me, what matters is that I am able to hang in there and keep up with a class. Muay Thai helps me to take care of myself. I may never get in the ring and fight, but Muay Thai is helping me to fight my illness in my day-to-day life.
- Alisha Ward is an artist and writer from the UK. When not doing Muay Thai she enjoys drawing and reading, and walks around old buildings