Living With Chronic Pain

How I Live With Chronic Pain

We all have aches and pains. For most, a little rest, ice, heat, Tylenol, and they are as good as new. But for the estimated 50 million people who suffer every day, it’s a different story.

I am frequently asked how I deal with 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 are exquisitely personal and unique to each individual.

But for those of us who live with pain every day it affects 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 didn’t spend a day in pain. As a physician I have clinical knowledge. As a patient I know how hard it can be to get through some days. I have that unique perspective of medical expertise and understanding what it means to be vulnerable, scared, and turning to someone who can guide you through the myriad of possible interventions in order to find ones that fit your specific needs.

Know this- You. Are. Not. Alone.

A man fell into a deep, dark hole.

He cried for help.

A doctor threw in a script and told him to call in the morning.

A clergy man threw in a prayer.

A friend happened by and jumped in.

“Are you crazy?” the man screamed, “Now we are both stuck!”

The friend merely looked at him an said,

“Don’t worry, I’ve been down this deep, dark hole before. I know the way out.”

Patients ask how I live with pain. Here’s my answer:

After just a couple of hours sleep I often awake due to pain. After a change in position to relieve the constant pressure of lying in bed, hot or cold packs, topical creams, patches, or even a late night bath and I’ve usually nodded off again. Sleeping late has always been a weekend delight, I prefer late nights. Looking at the time I usually have to rise, then returning back to sleep used to be a loved but unnecessary luxury in my youth. Now those extra hours can change the entire trajectory of my day.

But when I work, turning off the alarm and falling back to sleep is not an option. So, those few precious moments late at night when I finally get the chance to cuddle with my pets, watch TV, read, catch up with friends and family, must be cut short on days that work and chores took more time than expected. Desperately needed rest and recovery are the priority. In short, getting at least seven hours of sleep is the goal.

5:30 A.M. My babies wake me every morning at this time. I don’t jump out of bed like I used to. Now it takes time to ease out of a long held position. That’s when I take a few moments to give them their morning love, and I stretch. Over the last year and a half it’s become a much needed ritual and a perfect start to the day. After I feed and groom my sweethearts, I head straight to a hot bath.

That’s right- a hot, soothing bath. When I am able to float in a cocoon of heat surrounded by a bubble of water that eases spasms and relieves pressure points.

Now I can exercise. I know it sounds crazy, it should be the other way around- exercise then bathe- but without a long hot bath I’m in too much pain. I have to loosen up my muscles before I can stretch and mobilize. Without that bath, it is harder to move and the day is over before it’s begun. 

7:30 A.M. I’m off to work. The strain of sitting in an awkward position for the drive takes a toll, add to that any crazy drivers and unruly traffic making me late… the benefits of bathing and stretching are diminished.

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 starting in private practice, my goal has been to help people stay healthy, find available answers to issues and in the end, if necessary, learn to live with whatever cards they’ve been dealt. Changing our perspective from “fix me” to “how do I live with my concerns?” Is never easy. I know first hand how hard that shift can be. After exhausting all possible avenues, I’m still there when the path narrows and patients ask- “now what”?

Days are long. Filled with appointments, to phone calls, to emergencies, to reviewing lab, X-rays and paperwork received from other sources, to routine administrative 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, ie hot or cold packs, and topicals. But by 5:30-6 P.M., when I’m finally ready to head home, it’s harder to ignore.

My babies greet me at the door with such excitement and love I know I’ll make it to a warm hot bath after they are fed, groomed and held close.

6:30 P.M. I’m back in my tub, soaking and letting the hot water relax, calm and ease the toll hours of working created.

7:30 P.M., I’m finally ready to get on 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. Not the runners high I used to enjoy, it still surges much needed oxygen and nutrients to inflamed muscles. My mind calms as it focuses solely on my breathing and movements, easing both the physical and emotional tension of the day. I used to get on it daily but some weeks it’s just too much and I need a break. That occasional respite allows me time to recover. I always listen to my body. Pushing gently when I’m sore and tired usually brings much needed relief but those rare times it’s truly painful I honor what I’m feeling and give myself a break.

8:00 P.M. I’m back to the bathtub soaking in hot water with jacuzzi jets hitting painful spots. There’s no pressure anywhere, I just float. My third for the day. And when times were different and I had plans to go out to eat, see 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 notes, return calls, read dozens of correspondence, lab, x-rays…in a normal office day. Now we are forced to come home and spend time catching up. Patients are often surprised by a nighttime call.

This is when I eat. Formal meals are rare, I follow my own advice and graze throughout the day -a granola bar, carrot and vegetable sticks, fruit, cereal. I’m far too exhausted to cook during the week so I prepare quick, simple, ready to eat meals on the weekends.

10 P.M If I’m lucky, I finally crawl into bed. After a few more stretches, strategically placed topical creams and an ice or a heat pack I am ready to cuddle with my babies, relax and catch up on “me time”.

Tomorrow is another day.

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