Pain on the Brain

In high school I was a multi-sport athlete and I traveled the U.S. playing softball with one of the best teams in the American and National Softball Associations. I was in the perfect position to pay for college playing ball and I was set on realizing that truth. At 16 I started having severe low back pain that caused me to limp around the bases by the end of every practice. Despite the pain, I gave it my all and signed a scholarship offer my senior year. I could not get over the pain, however, and it literally impacted every single minute of my life. Eventually I learned I had multiple herniated disks, many bone spurs, and mild scoliosis – undoubtedly caused by repetitive motion, awkward postures, use of force, lack of effective stretches, and improper care for a body that squatted behind a plate for multiple games a day - for years. I gave up my scholarship. I became a personal trainer to retain my identity as an athlete and to help people eliminate this thing I call, “pain on the brain”.

Today my purpose is to help employers eliminate on the job injuries and improve employee health. My focus is the same. I want to eliminate and reduce this experience of pain I know to be debilitating physically and mentally. It comes in many forms: crushed fingers, pulled muscles, nagging shoulder pain, punctured skin, and the list goes on and on. Regardless of the type of injury, the experience of pain has a remarkably similar impact on the brain. So, let us talk about this “pain on the brain” thing. What is it? How does it impact our employees?

The experience of pain has two dimensions that intertwine. One dimension is where the pain is physically occurring. The other is how bad the pain is, and doctors will often have patients’ rate that on a scale of 1 to 10. That rating of pain is how your brain is experiencing it, and that experience tends to creep in even when we are not paying attention.

Now, I am not a neuroscientist, so I want to go back to my example of playing softball in chronic pain. I realize very clearly now that every time I stepped up to bat with this nagging pain in my low back and right leg, I was not even close to making the best decision, having the best reaction time, or reaching my full potential. Why? My brain was forced to oscillate between the shot of pain I knew was coming as I swung the bat and focusing on hitting a ball coming at 60+ mph from 37 feet away. Have you seen those simulations depicting the impact of distraction on safe driving? They clearly show our brains are pretty awesome, but they don’t multitask efficiently.

Take the previous example and plug in your employees and their work environment. If their brain is constantly moving its attention to their pain, is it possible they will make poor decisions, be less productive, and react poorly to situations? The answer is, yes!

If we take this a step further, we get into the depression and anxiety space which impacts sleep, presenteeism, willingness to work on getting better physically, and effectiveness in all areas of life. According to research from the World Health Organization, “individuals who live with persistent pain are four times more likely than those without pain to suffer from depression or anxiety, and more than twice as likely to have difficulty working” (Katz, 2002, p.39). The quality of life for an employee who is experiencing chronic pain, work related or not, is diminished at work and at home. Pain is on the brain.

I feel this obligation to every employee and client I work with to eliminate the possibility that they will get injured by using every tool I have available. Every safety professional feels that obligation. However, every single injury will not be avoided. Every single experience of pain will not be eliminated. Injuries and pain will swing on a pendulum between personal and work hours, and we need to be more realistic about that.

How do we improve, then? One way is to knit safety with wellness by using data to leverage the natural push and pull between the two systems. Where wellness programs are not established, they should be created. Where wellness and safety systems are working in silos, they should get to the same table. Take a deep look at each system and question how they are incentivized. Is there a better way to elevate each side by using data to integrate them? I think so, and I think taking action to do so now will have remarkable impacts on peoples lives and businesses when evaluated over time. There will be many benefits – reducing this experience of Pain on the Brain being just one.


Katz, N. (2002). The impact of pain management on quality of life. Journal of Pain and Symptom

Management, 24 (1), 38-47.

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