Walking With Pain in DC


Photo: Nick Ng

Pain is weird, indeed, as titled by science writer Paul Ingraham. Everything I knew or thought I knew about pain swirled in my head as a burning persistent pain flared in my right Achilles tendon with every step I took while walking toward the Washington Monument a few days ago.

Was there something wrong with the tendon? The soleus muscle? Was my shoe too tight or something wrong with the way I walk? If the latter is so, then why didn’t my left foot hurt, too? It shared as many steps around the nation’s capital as the right. I didn’t had an injury nor am I aware of any disease or disorder that might contribute the pain.

I managed to stroll toward the World War II Memorial and rest at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not far from where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I compressed the painful area on the tendon and rubbed my right calf. Pain was still there, but at least the view was beautiful. I imagined hundreds of thousands of people standing in the heat listening to Dr. King’s speech.


Photo: Nick Ng

Nothing felt wrong as I massaged the tendon and calf. I could still dorsiflex and rotate my ankle and wiggle my toes without pain. Seems like it wasn’t a structural problem. And I highly doubt it was because the next day, the top of the foot where the cuneiform and the first tarsal meet was extremely painful when I went walked around D.C. again. The tendon pain was gone, but the pain transferred to the top of the foot after I met up with my friends Will Stewart and Kyle Ridgeway.

Yesterday, after I left D.C. and arrived at George Mason University, the foot pain had reduced, despite having just over three hours of sleep. But I was still careful with how long I was walking. I kept telling myself, “Your foot is fine. Nothing’s wrong. Look at your left foot. There’s no pain! And it walked just as much as your right.”


Will (left) and Kyle: First time meeting in the flesh after spending years arguing and making jokes on Facebook. (Photo: Nick Ng)

This morning, the pain was reduced to almost zero. Maybe having eight hours of sleep helped? Since current pain science describes pain as a “complex and highly sophisticated protective mechanism,” perhaps something was triggering my brain and the rest of the nervous system that there is a threat.

But what was the threat? Thinking back, the pain could be a warning light that I need to take a break from walking since I was not accustomed to several miles of walking in one day. Maybe three hours of salsa dancing the night in Bethesda before exploring D.C. the next day had something to do with it.


As of right now, there is very little to no pain when I walk. While I have little clue to what was causing the pain, what I do know is:

1. It is unlikely caused by structural factors (e.g. muscle, tendon, fascia)

2. Rest and sleep helps, but keep walking and not for too long. Allow the body and nervous system to register that there is no threat that would break or wither my foot away.

I am open to the possibility that there could be something else going on that I could not detect, such as physiological or minute structural problems that could be triggering the “threat.” For now, I just need to be careful about how much walking or running I do and gradually regain my stamina and function.

Visiting D.C. was very educational. Not only did I learn more about American history and experience the environment, I also learned something about pain.

Oh, and I saw the largest dog I have ever seen.


Photo: Nick Ng


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