The chronic pain merry-go-round

I’ve been in chronic pain for the past 18 years.  On a daily basis I am either dealing with migraines, TMJ, neck pain,  and/or low back pain. Some days are such a struggle that I can’t get out of bed or I am in so much pain that I can’t walk.

I’ll never forget the time I was in graduate school and my roommate and I went on a bus trip to NYC.  I was probably around 26 or 27 years old at the time. It was a cold fall day and we were so excited to walk around, eat, and shop.  I think we had walked at least 50 blocks from midtown down to Chinatown/Little Italy. We were freezing so we went into a Starbucks to get a hot drink and sit down for a bit.  When I went to sit down I heard and felt a loud pop in my back. Shit.  Even though I had dealt with back pain, that never happened to me before.  I started freaking out internally because I had shooting pain in my lower back and I felt like I could barely breathe.  I got up to use the bathroom and thought maybe if i do a quick stretch in there everything will go back to normal.  Nope.  As I was stretching, I felt something else pop and I was in even more excruciating pain.  I couldn’t even stand up straight. I couldn’t walk normally and I was freaking out! Here I was in NYC, hours away from home, hours away from taking the bus back home, and I didn’t know what to do.  I had tears streaming down my face at Starbucks and my poor roommate had no idea what to do.

We decided to go somewhere else to sit down, somewhere with padded seats, until we could figure out what to do.  So we ended up going to an early dinner. In the meantime, she found a stray muscle relaxer in her purse to give to me and I had some Tylenol that I took.  As we sat there, I could barely eat because the pain was so intense. The muscle relaxer and pain meds never did help. We slowly walked to CVS after dinner so we could get icy hot for her to rub on my back in the dirty CVS bathroom.  That part of my story always makes me laugh. God bless her for being so nice. I was pissed that not only was my trip ruined, but so was hers. We took a taxi back to meet the bus (God knows I could barely walk). I was so happy to get on the bus knowing we would be home soon.  It was a long 1.5 hour ride home. After we got back, I ended up laying in bed for a few days with a heating pad until I was able to walk semi-normally again. Side note: don’t use a heating pad that long! It will increase inflammation!

Since then, I’ve had a number of similar episodes.  Usually out of the blue, when I’m like doing dishes or something.  I’ve had several MRIs, all showing progressive disc degeneration. I’ve done PT, strengthened my core at barre class, been to the chiro hundreds of times, taken hot baths with epsom salts, taken all sorts of medications, had nerve ablation, cortisone injections, dry needling,  the list literally goes on. If you’ve heard of it, I’ve probably tried it. Some things help more than others, but nothing is permanent. It’s so easy to get discouraged when you have chronic pain and can barely get out of bed some days.  I also know I could have it worse and there are people worse off than me, I hear you, I see you, and I sympathize with you.

Staying positive is probably the hardest thing to do when you have chronic pain,  but probably one of the things that will really help. Our brains have a way of taking our thoughts and manifesting them physically.  If we keep telling ourselves negative thoughts and worries, physically we won’t feel great either. So, here is a list of things that I feel have helped me in my chronic pain journey.  

  1. Hanging on to hope:   Typically, having chronic pain will be a life-long struggle.  But, when we have even a tiny bit of hope, it can give us the power to stay positive.  Hope can come in the form of having a day with less pain than normal, hearing about a new type of treatment, or finding a doctor that really understands us.  Keep moving forward. Keep your head up and keep going.
  2. Seeing everyday as a new day:  Maybe your pain is so bad today you can’t get out of bed.  Maybe it’s been like that for days or weeks. However, if we can tell ourselves, tomorrow is a new day and I’ll most likely feel better tomorrow, we can try to stay positive about how we feel.  If you are like me, your pain is cyclical. I have really bad days and I have days that aren’t so bad. Keep that in mind when you are having a rough day.
  3. Look into clinical trials:   This may not be for everyone, but there are always new treatments being proposed by scientists.  Some may not yet have FDA approval but are in the clinical trial stage. If you feel the benefits outweigh the risks, this might be a good option for you.  That leads me to the next point.
  4. Talk to your doctors about trying new treatments and therapies:  Keep asking. Keep doing research. Keep seeking out different doctors if yours isn’t helping.  Get 2nd, 3rd, and 4th opinions. Ask about those clinical trials. Don’t settle for less than. If your doctor isn’t taking your pain seriously, move onto the next.
  5. Try holistic therapies:  Many types of pain have multiple causes and biological pathways.  That’s why it’s so hard to treat pain. Some things that have helped me have been holistic therapies.  These can be used in addition to traditional western medicine. For example, cupping therapy and massage typically decrease my back pain and migraines.  Of course, not permanently, but even if it is temporary, I feel like it’s worth trying. Acupuncture and essential oils have also helped many people deal with intense pain.  Currently, I am in physical therapy again and I have found that dry needling really helps. It is similar to acupuncture in that you get stuck with thin needles.  But for dry needling, it is more directed at specific muscle groups and can be used in conjunction with electrodes to break up trigger points in the muscles.
  6. Take care of your mental health:  There is a strong, very strong correlation between chronic pain and depression.  It is so important to make sure you are taking care of your mental health. Whether it is going to a therapist, going to group therapy, or taking medications for mental health, all of these things can help to relieve your chronic pain and to give you a more positive outlook on your life.  There are many instances where people that treat their mental health end up having a significant reduction in chronic pain.
  7. Take care of your physical health:  By this I mean watch what you eat. Eating natural and clean food will help us feel our very best.  I know when I eat a lot of sugar or carbs I feel sluggish and fatigued. I have so much more energy when I eat vegetables, fruit, and lean meats.  Taking care of our physical health will improve our mental health and our overall well-being which can decrease chronic pain.  
  8. Support scientific research: If you can afford to donate to scientific research causes, do so!  I also encourage you to vote for politicians that support increased scientific funding and research.  It is becoming increasingly hard for scientists to get grant funding for research. The more funds we have for research, the more likely it is we will find better treatments for chronic pain.

I would love to hear any thoughts you have for treating your own chronic pain!  Please feel free to comment or message me.