My radio silence for the last little while has been due to finishing my lit review on chronic pain management by health care professionals. It’s interesting stuff (to me, because I am a nerd), but it surprised me constantly how much there was in the literature that was taken for granted as the best way to do things, that I had never heard before. I’ve been a pain patient for nearly five years! Why hadn’t anybody told me this before?!
I wanted to share some of the big, important stuff in case anybody else didn’t know it too, and doesn’t have the luxury of journal access via their educational institutions.
The widely accepted definition of pain is from the International Association for the Study of Pain; “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”
There are a couple of important parts to this. Here’s the first one:
Pain does not mean something in your body is being or has been damaged. It feels like it, which sucks horribly. But pain in and of itself is not harmful. If you have new pain, get it checked out, thoroughly. But if you’ve been scanned and tested and your doctor had assured you there is nothing physically wrong, it’s okay to believe it. It’s okay to move your body without fear that further damage will occur.
This does not mean your pain is not real and valid. The pain might be an ongoing signal from an old injury that’s healed, or a disproportionate response to a minor injury, or occurring in the absence of an injury. The definition of pain means that pain is whatever the person feeling it says it is. End of story. So even if medical professionals can’t find a concrete physical cause for your pain, it does not mean that you are imagining it. More importantly, it does not mean it cannot be treated.
The bad news that nobody told me? It might not go away. It’s difficult to fix something if you don’t know what it is. Even where a specific physical cause for pain is identified, as with a damaged disc, and surgery is undergone to fix it, the pain may persist. Because your brain is blessed with the very cool and adaptive ability of neuroplasticity, it learns and changes. Once it gets used to feeling pain, it gets really efficient at feeling pain. It can amplify small amounts of pain or just keep re-sending the same ‘OUCH!’ messages once the problem that prompted them has stopped. For some people, this means that once chronic pain has developed and gotten really entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to re-program and get things back to the way they used to be. So that’s the hard bit; there may not be a cure for your pain.
Stay with me though, because there’s good news. When the cause of pain cannot be cured, treatment can allow the reduction of pain, the reduction of suffering (that’s the emotional crappiness and distress that comes with the physical sensation), functional restoration (getting your body to be able to manage doing things you used to be able to do), and improved quality of life. And what it boils down to is that pain which has the disability and distress stripped away from it is manageable, even if you don’t ever know where it came from.
It’s not peachy-wonderful, because it’s pain, and it will always be a noxious stimulus. But if you can move and sit and exercise and go dancing and pick up your kids for a cuddle, and if pain is irritating but doesn’t cause you to become depressed and anxious and feel like the world is ending, and you can work and drive and have sex and pay your bills and get by without medication if that’s important to you, then you can have your life.
So, that’s the key. Finding ways to work with it. Getting to do what is important to you and be happy and fulfilled and well in spite of pain. I’m not saying it is easy, I’m saying it is worth it. Because living with pain can suck, but having pain and not living your life is the cause of way more suffering and heartache.
That’s easier said than done, you’re thinking. Pain hurts. It is by definition unpleasant. Well, yes. But a lot of things are unpleasant, and people manage to live good lives in spite of them. So the important thing is to get treatment that enables you to reduce the unpleasantness of the pain as much as possible. And I’ll talk about that in Part Two.
Let me know – are you sitting there saying, well, duh, or do you disagree? Or do you tentatively agree but haven’t been able to make it work for you yet? I agree with this whole-heartedly, and living well despite pain is my over-arching goal, but that does not mean I am a happy ray of sunshine every day, so I’m still somewhere in the middle too 🙂