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Six Things Pain is Teaching Me

Posted Oct 08 2013 12:17am

I thought I knew pain. I had had my share of it — from hip arthritis to sprained ankles to gallstones and two bouts of childbirth. But nothing has been like the past two weeks of astonishing, electrifying pain that has nearly disabled my every activity.

It started so innocuously. There was an enticing looking trampoline in the back yard of a house we were renting to celebrate our 25th anniversary. I climbed on to bounce with friends, no more than a few minutes.


But the morning after that two-minute jump, I woke up and found that my neck and upper back felt stiff and tweaky, like I’d slept on my pillow wrong. I figured it would go away as soon as I started moving around and loosening things up.

I was wrong. I entered, for the first time in my life, a growing, debilitating, excruciating pain that just would not go away. By the fourth night,I wasn’t able to sleep in my bed any longer. I was up every two hours, crying, only able to find intermittent relief if I rolled around on the floor with a lacrosse ball wedged underneath my shoulder blades.


I went to an acupuncturist. It got worse. I called my primary care physician. I went to physical therapy, where I was iced, and electrically stimulated, and taped. I got prescriptions over the next week for muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, narcotics in stronger and stronger doses, laxatives to ease the constipation of the painkillers, and finally, a Fentanyl patch, which is what they give women in labor. I felt like I was in labor, and that I was going to give birth to a spiny creature through my upper back. This made me vomit violently, causing even more spasming in my back. I had an MRI, which took every ounce of meditation practice I had ever experienced. I took hot, neck-deep baths with Epsom salts.
hot baths up to my neck

hot baths up to my neck

I applied blue ice and microwaved, aromatherapy shoulder wraps. I got a plastic goose hook with a sharp beaky hook, and the only thing that allowed me to tolerate walking around was simultaneously digging that thing into my upper back, poking and clawing at the relentless spasm. A sweet friend came over and gave me a wonderful shiatsu treatment and when she left, I was comfortable lying on blankets on the floor. I dozed off feeling blissed out. But when I got up, the pain returned.


The only thing that gave me pure relief was regular doses of Percocet which allowed me to drift into comfortable sleep. The minute I put myself into a sitting or standing position for more than five minutes, the chewing, clawing sensation resumed.


I have learned many things during this Time of Pain. Things I never really appreciated until now. I learned that:

  1. Pain is expensive. During this period of pain, I had to give up hundreds of dollars for concert tickets I had paid for. Nobody on Craigslist or Facebook wanted to see Jackson Browne as badly as I had. Ditto for a triathlon I had registered for (I went, driven by someone else, to cheer on my friends who had signed up to support me). Ditto for a hotel room I had pre-paid to stay in for a friend’s out of town wedding. It has added up big time, all these things I paid for when I assumed I would be active and well.
  2. Pain is boring.Not only for me, wandering from one horizontal surface to another, but for the kind people who ask me every morning,”How do you feel?” and getting the same tired, dogged answer every time. “Not so great.” I wonder how long these friends will want to stick around when I am not the upbeat, active person I was before that damn trampoline.
  3. Pain is on its own timeline. It seems like maybe it’s getting better. My husband (who has been a saint, and given new meaning to the words “in sickness and in health”) observes that at least now I am “comfortable at rest” instead of “agonizingly uncomfortable no matter what position.” But two weeks into it, I want to be better than able to lie around on my back all day. I need to get up and out and around. I need to be able to drive my car without crazy discomfort or narcotic wooziness. Pain doesn’t give a shit about my schedule, my calendar, my job or my plans.
  4. Pain doesn’t show on the outside. After I employ Lamaze breathing techniques to endure a shower, toweling off, getting dressed and drying my hair, numerous optimistic acquaintances have exclaimed, “You look so much better!” But I am cringing from the stabbing red-hot poker that is assaulting that area between my scapula and my thoracic spine. They don’t notice that it doesn’t take longer than me for ten minute to end up on the floor again, seeking out the ball, the foam roller, the ice bag. I know that I looked “fine” when I was cheering my buddies on at See Jane Tri, but I was feeling terrible. I had to stop several times to roll on a picnic bench. Lily rocked the tri. I rocked the cheering on. Sort of.

    Lily rocked the tri. I rocked the cheering on. Sort of.

I had to lie down on the ball every few minutes.

I had to lie down on the ball every few minutes.

 

  • Chronic pain is absolutely debilitating. I am a physical therapist. I used to work primarily with people who had endured years and years of pain. I think about them now. I think about how they used to relay their stories to me and weep. How I didn’t really understand the depth of the mental and emotional exhaustion that pain can exact on a human being. It has only been two weeks for me, but I see that this could be a long road.
  • Pain is mysterious. Nobody can explain, really, why it hurts the way that it does. Maybe it is a rotated or twisted thoracic vertebrae, out of alignment with a rib. Maybe it is a neuro-electrical loop that won’t close or stop. Maybe it is muscle spasm. Maybe it is the “moderate narrowing” of my cervical spine, pressing on my spinal nerves. Maybe it just IS. Many people can jump and fling themselves around on a trampoline to no ill effects.
  • As I write this, I don’t know how or when I will feel “normal” again. When I will be able to effortlessly bathe, or eat a meal, let alone drive around in my car all day and practice as a home health physical therapist. When I will be able to swim in open water, ride a bike or run a 5k race. All of these things are like dreams to me now. All I can do is take each moment, each moment of discomfort, to try and learn someting, try and find a shred of compassion for myself and this situation. All I can do is ask for patience and a bit of relief.

    heat? ice? whatever.

    heat? ice? whatever.

    sadly, this is not always possible.

    sadly, this is not always possible.


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