A recent article in U.S.A. Today discussed the “health care crisis” of chronic pain, stating that 40% of Americans now experience chronic pain… 40%! Just think about that for a moment. Thankfully, research institutes are also finally paying attention to this startling statistic and studying ways to treat this epidemic.
What stood out most to me in the article is the description of what happens to a being when they experience unrelenting pain. We learn to become fluent in the Language of Pain. It’s the old “practice makes perfect” adage. But in this case, it is completely unhelpful.
Our bodies and minds are wired to learn new habits and behaviors through repetition. The article states:
“In a sense, chronic pain is not all that different from learning to play the piano or speak French. The more the body ‘practices’ processing pain, the better it gets at it and the stronger the connections between nerves becomes.”
It speaks of a term, us chronically ill are all too familiar with, “allodynia.” Allodynia is when pain sensations are so out of proportion with the reality that even the slightest breeze on the skin, gentlest of hugs, or softest touch of a feather, can feel like scalding water, the burn of a blowtorch, or thousands of needles stinging the skin all at once. This can be a very frustrating condition to explain to “non-sufferers.” How do you tell someone, “I’m sorry, but your hug hurts me,” without hurting their feelings?!
Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting 6 months or more. It can be triggered by illness, but also by post-surgical pain that doesn’t go away, injury (even after it is technically “healed”), aggressive medical treatments (especially those for cancer), and chronic conditions such as arthritis, back pain and headaches.
Chronic pain effects 100 million Americans and costs between $560-635 billion dollars per year, yet doctors only receive 9 hours on average of pain education during their entire medical school education!
One of the sacriest facts is that it causes permanent damage to the body. Chronic pain can literally shrink the brain. It can reduce gray matter as much as 20 years of aging does!! (according to research at Northwestern University)
The biggest enigma of the pain puzzle for me, is the incongruity of my own personal pain responses. I actually have an extremely high tolerance for pain when it comes to injury, injections, and other invasive procedures. And then there’s the flip side… my body can be triggered by God knows what (I always equate it to having a switched flipped). When this happens, I am writhing in pain, the touch of the lightest sheet on my body can trigger what feels like an attack on my body… my nervous system is on fire. I would sell my soul to the devil to make it stop!
Hence the pain conundrum!
And also the reason why scientists state that suicide rates are twice as high in people with chronic pain. Chronic pain is highly unpredictable and volatile. And, currently, extremely mistreated and misunderstood.
Although, they are starting to discover that there are several non-invasive, non-drug treatment options for “quieting the pain.” I have found many of these helpful (when I remember to employ them!) and I would be interested to hear what techniques others use to treat this painful condition.
- Exercise: This can be the hardest to start because when we are in the midst of pain, our minds tell us to be still; we are terrified that if we move, it will only get worse. But this is the exact opposite from the truth. The USA Today article states, “Exercise is as close as there is to a magic bullet for pain.” Hazzah! I think of it as re-training the nerves, muscles and brain (just as it has been conditioned to feel pain at every turn). I started riding my exercise bike daily 2 months back and it has changed my life. Now when I am having a particularly bad flare of pain, my body actually “tells” me to get on my bike and move. And it works! Truly. NOTE: It may be helpful to begin a exercise program in a warm pool.
- Acupuncture: Once dismissed as little more than a “placebo effect,” newer studies in (objective) mice show that acupuncture stimulates adenosine, a powerful pain reliever made naturally in the body. And studies in humans are showing that after acupuncture, there are powerful changes that occur in the nerve pathways, running from the brain to the rest of the body (an important way the nervous system can control pain). Has anyone had success with this?
- Massage: I swear by this! I see my massage therapist every 2-3 weeks and she has changed my body’s response to painful stimuli. My recommendation would be to find someone trained in therapeutic/medical massage that will work long term with you; make sure it is someone you can clearly communicate with. When I first started, my therapist could only “rock” parts of my body until I got used to touch. Now, even when my body is “on-fire,” it responds positively to her touch; she quiets the hyper-active nerves. There is no one else I would trust to touch me.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Meditation and Bio-Feedback: All treatments that use the mind to quiet the body. I use guided meditations daily and can now almost “leave my physical body” when it is in pain (not always, but often). I know people who have had success with formal bio-feedback training and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique or Tapping Therapy).
There are other treatment options, not scientifically proven, but people have found comfort with:
- Chiropractic Care
- Magnet Therapy
- Heat Therapy
- Electrical Stimulation (TENS units)
- And what I like to call: “Distraction Therapy:” engaging the mind in another activity (something simple and repetitive like knitting, coloring, zentangles, bead stringing, crosswords or puzzle books, music, silly kitten videos!, etc.), until the pain becomes distanced from your physical body. This works wonders for me!
Please share your pain coping techniques, so that we can all benefit from the shared experience of this “painful” condition (pun intended!).
If you are interested in reading the full article, follow this link:
Also, here is a link to the American Chronic Pain Association: