Remember what it felt like to stick your tongue on the terminals of a D battery? (Or was that just me being coaxed along by my younger brother?) Now turn that sensation right up, add in a substantial knock to your funny bone and magnify with a spasm through your neck, an arm on fire and a tingling hand that changes color regularly.
That’s the closest I can come to describing the chronic pain I live with.
Every. Single. Day.
And while it has turned my world upside down and wrenched from me my ability to work in the profession I love, I’m one of the lucky ones.
Chronic pain affects a whopping 30.7% of Americans, half on a daily basis, from one-third to half of all Brits, with moderate to severely disabling chronic pain present in 10.4% to 14.3%, and approximately 20% of Australians (yes, my hand it up!)
Yet chronic pain is invisible and can be difficult to quantify. With no blood test or x-ray to detect it, chronic pain can go blatantly un or under treated…
With devastating effects.
At worst, relationships falter, families break down, employment options fray and a sufferer can become isolated, alone.
The research shows, those with chronic pain are more likely to suffer from depression, are at increased risk of anxiety and have a suicide rate twice the average.
Chronic pain also affects our brains, causing chemical changes and neural reorganization. We effectively become wired for pain and reduced function.
As a study by Mutso and her team in the Journal of Neuroscience state, chronic pain adversely impacts on “functions including learning, memory, fear and emotional responses and map on to cognitive and emotional problems (including) emotional decision making, working memory and difficulty in classical conditioning tasks.” So that’s why we feel vague, forgetful and irritable. Just want you need on top of ever-present pain.
Yet it’s not surprising really when you consider the overarching pain, the grief for a life irrevocably changed and the wish for a snippet of silence from the distress.
So what can you do to help quieten the pain?
I can only speak from my personal and professional experience as a natural health professional. Here are my insights.
Seek professional help and garner support.
I can’t begin to imagine how I would cope without the wonderful team I have around me. From my general practitioner, psychologist and psychiatrist to my family and friends.
There is much discussion around appropriate medications and drug risks in the research and the mass media. Often the latter can be inflammatory. It is important to speak to your doctor and pharmacist and decide on an informed plan tailored to your needs, and reassessed intermittently.
It’s easy to get caught up in the never-ending cycle of rumination and a focus on pain. After all, pain can feel like it’s everywhere, crawling underneath your skin and deep within your bones, all but impossible to separate from our suffering self.
Mindfulness meditation can help to reduce distress, both physical and emotional, and may stem the leaching of our quality of life. And even with high pain levels, I’ve found this is possible to implement.
Breath in 2,3 and out 4,5
When we are in pain, we sometimes forget to breath well. And with shallow or held breath, we transport ourselves metaphorically back in history to a time spent hidden behind the bushes, still as could be, vehemently hoping the sabre tooth tiger didn’t look our way and discover her next tasty meal. By breathing deeply and slowly… in 2,3 and out 4,5… we can downgrade the sympathetic response – the fight or flight reaction – and reduce our pain and stress levels.
Move, when and how you can
Before I was injured, I loved the gym. The endorphin release and satisfaction of a workout well done was great for the soul and the mind, as much as for the body.
But with chronic pain, sometimes the form of exercise we once loved is no longer an option. My challenge includes lifting wet washing to peg on the line as this minimal weight can exacerbate the heavy ache in my arms. And so it became impossible to lift a dumbbell, let alone bench press 70 pounds. I tried.
So I walk for my fitness and my sanity.
A couple of years ago I developed a trochanteric bursitis. The area near my right hip felt almost unbearable and I needed a walking stick to hobble around. Thank goodness Chiropractic and Physiotherapy got me back on my feet fast, but I noticed in amidst the pain and sedentary position, my mood rapidly deteriorated.
Whatever it is, find how you can move and do it often.
The importance of pacing
I never was a pacer: more of a racer. Everything needed to be done yesterday, even the tasks only discovered today. Slowing down was hard.
But I’m not alone.
My Mom is a retired charge nurse of a rehabilitation ward. She would say that it was common for people to have a ‘good day’ and set about completing all those built up jobs in one sitting, only to bring themselves down hard. One guy actually fell off the roof he’d climbed up on to clear the guttering!
Pacing provides a steadiness, and learning to set a realistic pace, while difficult, is transformational. Dried half the dishes? Great! Tidied the waste into the garbage bin? Perfect… It doesn’t now need to go outside as well. Need a lie down after making your bed? That’s what it’s there for!
And speaking of beds…
Power nap… because you might have to.
Chronic pain can cause insomnia. Like tonight, I’d tried to drift to the land of nod unsuccessfully for more than two hours. I hurt and so I’m awake and it’s 4:24am. Hot water bottles on my neck and my arm, magnesium cream rubbed gently on the base of my head and into my tingling upper limb, settled in my rocking chair in my dressing gown, I know I’ll need to have a power nap… later today.
I’d cared for thousands of people over my decade as a clinician, a significant number with ongoing pain, but while they often looked tired, no one had prepared me for the sheer unadulterated exhaustion of chronic pain.
Luckily my psychologist told me recent research has revealed naps aren’t the monster they were previously made out to be. Even if they were, if you’ve got to sleep, the afternoon will do fine.
I’ve been a chronic pain hugger and huggee for years and when you’ve hit the floor and dismay sets in, sometimes a big bear hug is the very best antidote. There’s something beautifully innate about the power of touch.
My hope for you…
While chronic pain can be truly disabling and life changing in unimaginable ways, I hope you find the right support systems, both professional and personal, that your pain is managed as best it can be, and that you know you are never alone in this.
Now, wish me luck. I’m off to the pain specialist on Wednesday for another attempt at relief.