Living With Chronic Pain

Who Is Dr. Susan Courtney?

I’m a native born Tucsonan who graduated from the University of Arizona and trained in Tucson hospitals. Since 1984, I have worked in my community as a primary care physician. I treat patients with all types of medical conditions that can often create significant impacts on their lives, such as obesity, arthritis, cardio vascular, and diabetes- and any resulting chronic pain issues. I help patients deal with the long-term effects that can be devastating and debilitating, showing them appropriate options to live fuller lives.

I also specialize in Occupational Medicine, helping companies keep their employees safe and healthy. I treat their acute and chronic injuries, help maintain a safe and ergometric work environment, and establish drug and alcohol testing programs. For decades, I’ve performed disability and independent medical exams, following up in court as an expert witness when required.

Besides all my medical expertise, I am also intimately aware of the toll chronic pain inflicts. I had my first herniated disc in the 1980’s. It resolved with conservative treatment, allowing me to be pain free until 1992 when I suffered another herniated disc, this time requiring surgery. In the intervening 26 years I have had over two dozen multi-level cervical or neck fusions- with multiple recurrent herniations and instability, bilateral carpal tunnel releases and a left first toe fusion.

I’m a private practitioner in my own office and a single Mom, who’s struggling just like you to enjoy and live my life. It took me years to finally realize that there are no quick fixes. Unless there was an acute issue that required intervention, I had to learn to LIVE with my constant pain. Over the last two decades, my patients have asked how I achieved this; here’s my answer.

I had to stop looking for a quick fix. Turning to anyone and everyone who promised complete pain relief through surgery. Alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, injections, medications, vitamins, magnets. . .Some helped, some were a waste of money, others harmful. Regardless, I had to stop looking for answers and realize most of the work had to come from me. Ancillary treatments were just that-ancillary to my own participation-not excluding it. I had to take that incredibly difficult step, that 180-degree shift in perspective and stop asking for fixes and look for ways to live with the pain. That meant looking at my own involvement and seeking healthier, more well rounded methods to succeed.

I could no longer be a bystander, demanding others take responsibility. I had to stop being a victim and start taking responsibility for what I contributed- not exercising, excess weight, poor diet, lack of sleep, doing activities I knew would hurt or even potentially harm me. All within my control, all I had a million excuses for why I couldn’t do.

Arguments like “I’m a single Mom, if I don’t move that 50lb pot, who will?” “My 25lb daughter needs me to carry her everywhere, pick her up from bed, wrestle with her. . .or she’ll cry.” “That 40lb bag of dog food is cheaper than the 15lb one.” “I don’t have time or it hurts too much to exercise.” “I work full time, take care of my daughter, I have no time for me.”

Sound familiar? One day, I had an epiphany, I could keep on living like this. Searching for a pain free life, making excuses, and being miserable, or I could stop. So far, I hadn’t gotten any results from this path, how could trying a different one be worse?

Like any change, it has to begin with the determination to start, the positive attitude and belief in yourself that you can accomplish your goal, and then the action to follow through. But, nothing changes immediately. It took months, years to get where we are, we won’t see results in only a few weeks. Understanding that is imperative to success. Nothing happens quickly that stands the test of time. Persistence, patience, time, and hard work are all needed to make a lasting change.

But, that’s frustrating and hard to accept when we want results now. Once, I made the decision to exercise I jumped right into it. I got on the treadmill and walked for thirty minutes. The next day, I was in agony. A healthy, twenty-year old may be able to jump start their exercise program that fast, but not a middle aged, surgically affected, out of shape woman! Of course, I took this as a sign I couldn’t, and shouldn’t be exercising. After a few days, reality finally took hold and I admitted that perhaps it wasn’t that I couldn’t exercise, it was that I shouldn’t have gone for thirty minutes.

That was when I started the painstaking, slow process of moving forward. Not by leaps and bounds, but by small, acclimating steps.

I started walking on the treadmill and stretching five minutes every day. I came home after excruciatingly long and tiring days with every excuse on the tip of my tongue why I couldn’t, but I did it anyway. My daughter sat at the end of the treadmill sharing her day while I stretched and mobilized each muscle group. It became a ritual, a habit, and then, miraculously something I looked forward to. It became an amazing way to decompress release some of the stress and pain in my muscles as well as leave the trials of the day behind. I could then focus on what was in front of me: my breathtaking little girl. Feeling productive during the day and precious time with those I loved became an integral part of my pain management.

Exercise, long hot baths, ice or heat packs, medication, maintaining a healthy weight, eating well. . . helped me to understand the pain would always be there but it didn’t have to control me.

That’s what I share with my patients. While we’re talking about their complaints, finalizing a complete physical and work up, I help them look at their lifestyle, activities, diet and other ways to deal with their pain. Even if that means getting on the floor and showing them how to safety mobilize.

Chronic pain isn’t unifocal. It’s extremely complex and involves multiple issues that require a comprehensive evaluation and treatment program. Narcotics may play a small part in the relief, often so that other options can be discussed and then initiated, but as we’re learning, they aren’t the answer, too often contributing to the problem. When both the health care provider and patient can talk frankly and look at all possible solutions, learning to live with the pain becomes a reality.

I know this is true because I’m a living breathing, walking reality story. Whether it’s been raising my daughter alone since she was 3, working as a solo practitioner, spending time with friends. . .pain has never stopped me from experiencing all life has to offer. What I can do now may have changed- I use the elliptical instead of jogging, stop lifting, swim instead of hike, and limit trips. I am still active and healthy.

I’ve investigated the options available, looked at the truths and come up with a path I know can work. It has for me. Now, let me show it to you.

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