We all have aches and pains. For most, a little rest, ice, heat, OTC Tylenol, and they are as good as new. If not in a day or two, within a few weeks. Still, overall feeling well without impacting daily life. But for those of us with chronic pain, it’s a different story.
Patients ask me all the time what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Explaining something so integral to my life is like trying to define marriage to those who are single, divorce to those happily married or parenthood to those without children. All exquisitely personal and unique to each individual.
But for those of us who live with pain every day it impacts every aspect of our lives, because it colors everything we see, feel and do. I am a physician, I am a mother, I am a sister, I am a friend, I am a woman and I live with chronic pain. I can’t remember the last time I woke up or didn’t spend a day in pain. It’s often hard for those who don’t have pain to understand what we go through as we work to survive, enjoy life and move through our days. As a physician I can relate. As a patient I know how hard it is to keep up hope. I have that unique perspective of medical expertise and understanding what it means to be vulnerable, scared, and turning to someone who will listen and guide you through the myriad of possible interventions in order to find ones that work for you. Know this- You. Are. Not. Alone. We are all in this together.
Patients ask how I deal with pain in my life. Here’s my answer:
I wake up every morning after sleeping only an hour or two at a time, if I’m lucky, due to pain. I’m constantly changing positions, using hot or cold packs, topical creams or patches, and medications, before falling to sleep again. I don’t jump out of bed like I used to. It take’s a minute after the alarm sounds to realize it’s time to get up. I’m not a morning person and realized long ago if I get the opportunity to sleep even a couple extra hours I feel better. But when I work, that’s not an option.
My babies wake me at 5:30 A.M. every morning. After I feed and groom my sweethearts, who saved me far more than I saved them, I head straight to a hot bath.
That’s right- a hot, soothing bath. The few times of the day I feel human, able to float in a cocoon of heat with no pressure, anywhere.
The pain improves. Now I can exercise. I know it sounds crazy, it should be the other way around, but without a long hot bath I’m in too much pain. I have to loosen up my muscles with a long hot soak before I can stretch and mobilize each group. Without that bath, I can’t move and I know the day will be over before it’s begun.
7:30 A.M. I’m off to work. The strain of sitting in an awkward position for even the 15 minute ride takes its toll, add to that any crazy drivers and traffic making me late, worrying about the issues to come. . .the benefits of bathing and stretching are gone and the pain has started to increase. And the day has just begun!
I love working. I love being a physician. It gives me purpose and an amazing opportunity to share in the lives of people who I’ve been honored and privileged to treat, in some cases for over 30 years. Since I starting in private practice, my goal has been to help people learn to live with whatever cards they’ve been dealt. Find viable options and then turn their perspective from “fix me” to “how do I live with my chronic pain?”.
Days are long. Filled with whatever patients need. From actual visits, to phone calls, to emergencies, to lab, X-rays and paperwork received from other sources, to routine daily office concerns. Most of the time I can divert my attention from the pain or use the same mechanisms I do at night to get through the 10 hours. But by 5:30-6 P.M., when I’m finally ready to head home, my pain is at an all-time high.
My babies greet me at the door with such excitement and love I know I’ll make it to the warm hot bath waiting for me after they are fed, groomed and walked.
6:30 P.M. I’m back in my tub, soaking away the incredible pain I’m in. It never goes away, but hot soaks often help. 7:30 P.M., I’m finally ready to get on the elliptical. Yes, the elliptical! I had to give up running on a treadmill over a decade ago. The elliptical is less stress on my back but still gives me a cardiac workout. Once again, I needed to loosen up the muscles and lessen the pain before starting. I used to get on it every day but that has changed over the last year. Exercising daily has become more difficult. Although it’s a great means of de-stressing, surging oxygen to every muscle and making them work together as a unit, I now require a break from the elliptical every two to three days. So I’m on it 5 days a week instead of daily. That midweek respite allows me time to recover. But the daily stretches are imperative. I average 5 hours of combined exercise a week.
8:00 P.M. I’m back to the bathtub soaking in hot water with jacuzzi jets hitting painful spasms. There’s no pressure anywhere, I just float. My third for the day. And if I had plans to go out to eat, a movie, or a play, there’d be a fourth!
8:30 PM is when I finally sit down and start my digital office work. Most physicians in this computer age can’t complete all the records, read dozens of correspondence, lab, x-rays, in a normal office day. Now we are forced to come home and spend time catching up. It’s called “pajama time.” Otherwise we’d be overwhelmed even more so the next day. Plus I want to make sure I respond to any concerns and phone calls. Patients are often surprised I’m still working and calling late at night.
This is when I eat. Even though a formal lunch is rare, I follow my own advice and graze all day long -a granola bar, carrot and vegetable sticks, fruit, cereal -so that all through the day I’m eating little bits. By dinner I tend to have a prepared salad or whatever I can that’s quick and simple. I don’t cook much. A friend of mine used to tell me “Honey, “you don’t cook you microwave.” It’s true. Although with all the literature I’ve posted on the impact of processed foods and sweeteners, I’ve started fixing healthy meals on weekends for use throughout the week.
10 P.M., if I’m lucky, is finally time for me to crawl into bed and finish my last 10 minutes of low back stretches, apply ice or a heating pad, topical creams, take medications and cuddle with my loving babies. Time to finally relax and catch up on “me time”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Another long day starts again at 5:30 A.M. tomorrow.