I am no stranger to chronic pain, primarily related to my spine and head. Low back pain started seemingly out of the blue in my twenties, when I replaced running with walking as my morning exercise. Low impact aerobics were better than no impact aerobics as far as I was concerned.
In my early thirties, recurrent neck and upper back muscle spasms, as well as arm weakness/ numbness/ tingling led to a neurosurgery workup. The myelogram that confirmed a herniated disc also resulted in severe complications (Dural tear and chemical meningitis), leaving me with a 24/7 headache that lasted three years.
I am not kidding.
Yes, three years. Yes 24/7. On a scale of 1-10, it ranged between 4 and 7 on a regular day, 8-10 on a bad day. Burning. Pounding. Like the back of my head was exploding and at the same time someone was trying to pull the facial bones off the front of my head.
Unrelieved by medication. Relieved only by sleeping.
I would eventually undergo surgery, a cervical fusion, and three months later the headache was gone. Oh, sweet blessing of joy!
A couple years later, my "myelogram headache" returned, the result of another neck disc herniation. After treatment with epidural steroid injections - three courses of three injections over the period of three years - I finally stepped away from twenty years of my beloved Operating Room nursing. When people asked me if I missed the OR, I replied that I missed the work, but I did not miss the pain.
Life went on. Pain came and went. I lived with degenerative disc disease, what I jokingly referred to as SFD (shit for discs), and managed, with daily stretching and strengthening exercises, to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. Which included three adventure treks: one each in the Sahara and Jordanian Deserts and the Himalayan Hill Mountains in the Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal.
In early May 2017, to celebrate the completion of my elderly father’s twice a day post cataract eye drops administration (or as I called it, being the Pop Drop Girl), I decided to treat myself to an ice cream cone nearby. Stepping up on to the ordering area, I slipped on damp pavement. Becoming briefly and completely airborne, I landed flat on my back. In semi shock, I gratefully received a free extra-large ice cream cone for my troubles.
It was delicious.
No surprise, the back and headache troubles resurfaced with a vengeance.
Holistic crack-less chiropractic support, X-Rays, MRIs, a neurosurgeon consult, ten weeks of physical therapy, referral to a local center for pain medicine and multiple procedures later, gratitude for partial relief of head pain and a solid plan to alleviate lower back pain reigned.
Along the way were sprinkled day and weeks that my bed and my exquisite down pillows offered the only relief from the pounding jarring pain in my head and/or the bone deep anguish in my lower back.
What a blessing to sit up, even more so to move around and undertake simple household and outdoor activities. Family and friends came again and again to help with the regular chores beyond my capacity.
Ever seeking the path to optimum health, and knowing that optimum is a relative term, I focused on and now offer these seven strategies to promote the best wellness possible in the presence of chronic pain.
Ill, Still, Chill, Fill, Will, Pill and Drill.
ILL: Accept with love and compassion that you are ill with dis-ease,
· Stop resisting the pain; rather, play with the idea of leaning into it, accepting it. Accepting and loving yourself just the way you are.
· Be aware of the sneaky side effect of chronic pain: difficulty concentrating. Don't beat yourself up about this. It's the way things are.
· Place your hand(s) as close to the source of pain as possible and offer gratitude for all the times in your life that this part of your body sustained you and kept you going. Then offer compassion for the dis-ease you're experiencing, and hope for better days.
· Pace yourself. You likely have good days and bad days. Honor each of them. Be especially grateful for the good ones and try not to overdo it.
STILL: Be still and allow yourself time to rest.
· Remember, you are not being lazy. Chronic pain consumes huge amounts of energy. It also produces stress, a key culprit in many illnesses.
· Take a realistic look at your commitments, and adjust them accordingly to free up time for self-care.
· Learn to pre-emptively say NO.
· Learn to go slow, or at least as slowly as your life circumstances allow.
· If necessary, arrange for someone to watch the kids for thirty minutes so you can rest in quiet. An over-the-ears noise reduction headset, soft calming music, and eye pillow offer added respite, even if only for a few minutes.
CHILL: If possible, chill the area of pain with a cold pack.
· If warmth feels better, it’s ok to use that.
· You can grab a frozen bag of peas, make your own cold pack, or select from numerous products available online for both hot and cold therapy. Elastogel pads are my favorite, especially because they can be frozen for cold and heated in the microwave for hot. I use one specially made for head/neck and another long one for spine.
· Important! Be sure to limit use of hot or cold packs to twenty minutes at a time, waiting two hours before reapplying.
FILL: As much as possible, fill your time and space with that which nourishes you.
· If you need help, ask for it. You are important and you deserve support.
· Look around your space. What about it could you change, within reason, that would make you feel better?
· Turn off the news. Stop reading, watching or listening to it. It's an energy drainer. My attitude is that if it's important enough, I'll see something on Facebook. Speaking of Facebook… if you are a regular, pay attention to what you're paying attention to. Move on from posts that drain your emotional energy. Give yourself permission to step away, unfollow, leave.
· Play Reiki healing recordings. Healing energy is healing energy no matter where it comes from, and this is my favorite.
· Consider EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) tapping as a powerfully self-loving adjunctive treatment modality. Brad Yates is the master of online tapping videos and you can find one on tapping for pain here
· Turn on funny and inspiring YouTube videos. My current favorite is the two young choir boys signing a meow song with deadpan faces. I laugh out loud every time.
· You can find my all-time favorite uplifting YouTube videos here. Just scroll down to the bottom.
WILL: Use your power of intention, your will power, in the direction of health.
· You may have to live with chronic pain the rest of your life. Remember, joy lives here too.
· It’s also possible that your chronic pain is rooted in emotional pain and scars that can be healed. For example, when I was meeting with a therapist in 2008, I mentioned I had lived with back pain most of my adult life. Her immediate question, “How were you unsupported in your life?” was quickly followed by my response of “It would be easier to answer that by naming the few times I felt supported.”
· Be willing to consider professional help. Body/energy, traditional therapy, and/or Somatic Experiencing may change your life for the better. It did mine. You can learn more about resources I’ve found helpful in the last link above.
· Make healthy choices about what you put in your body, trusting that your body will respond with better health. By the same token, if you're having a really bad day and that sweet treat will soften your distress, enjoy it. My motto: moderation in all things, including moderation.
· Move as much as you safely can. Take a slow walk. If that's too much, move around the house. If that's too much, move around on the sofa or in your bed. Contract and relax your muscles. Still too much? Then imagine walking, imagine moving, imagine contracting and relaxing your muscles. Believe it or not, even that has benefits.
· Be willing to release that which no longer serves you. Are you holding on to items or beliefs you no longer need? Clearing the space in your head and your home allows the creation of a new, healing flow.
· Your pain may or may not change; your heart and spirit definitely will… for the better.
PILL: There very well may be a place for pain pills in managing your pain.
· If you are using over the counter and/or prescription medication, take each pill with mindfulness and intention.
· Before taking each pill, pause to consider if you’re doing this out of habit and if you really need it.
· If you don’t really need it, set it aside for now.
· If you really need it, take it. Especially if you’re dealing with severe pain, which is hard to get control of if you wait too long.
· If you know you’re going to be physically active doing things that typically increase your pain, be sure to take your pain medication about an hour beforehand.
· If you’re using aspirin or any of the NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen) medications, make sure you take it with food. The last thing you want is an ulcer on top of your present pain. If you keep these meds by your bed, keep something healthy to eat, like protein bars or nuts there as well.
· Make sure you do not exceed the maximum daily allowance of any medication, especially those including acetaminophen and/or paracetamol. Years ago, these alternatives to aspirin were thought to be free of side effects. More recent studies have shown that they can damage the liver if overused.
DRILL: Do the drill of using the resources you have at your disposal.
· If you have physical therapy exercises you’re supposed to do daily, do them daily. If it’s too painful, follow up with your doctor and/or trainer, and ask for an alternative.
· Create an environment in your home that supports you. To expand on the point above in the “Will” section ask for help to remove clutter if you cannot do it yourself. Looking at a mess does nothing positive for your pain and can add stress.
· Develop a regular morning and evening routine and stick to it as much as possible. Your nervous system likes routine, and may reward you with an easing of your pain symptoms.
· Try to get enough sleep every night.
· Schedule your daytime physical activities to when you feel best.
· Imagine there's a loving peace-mongering drill sergeant whispering sweetly at you to keep going, you can do this.
One final very important consideration is to keep your sense of humor alive. Laughter truly is the best medicine. It is in a spirit of humor that I share with you this pain process workflow, the idea of creating being a through back to my healthcare informatics workflow documentation days. To best enjoy and learn from it, go through it bit by bit. Follow one train of thought to its conclusion without concern for the other bits.