After my diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, I spent a lot of time with various health professionals, such as my rheumatologist, physiotherapist, general practitioner, a health coach and eventually a counsellor.
I asked each of them, “Will my pain ever go away?” It is a question that many chronic illness sufferers ponder, even obsess over, which is understandable. I desperately hoped that I could move beyond the pain.
Those health practitioners gave me varying answers, with some saying that it is about managing the pain, as opposed to getting to a pain-free state, and others were optimistic that I could become pain-free.
A lot of that optimism seemed to come from the latest medical ideas and research on chronic pain. It is amazing how many times I have been told stories of people who experience an injury and feel no pain, such as the guy who had a nail through his head, and did not feel a thing.
There is increasing emphasis on pain being a subjective phenomenon that we each experience in a unique way. Our brain and nervous system interact with each other, in ways we are not even conscious about that can contribute to the pain experience. Apparently, this is not the same as saying “It is all in your head” but there are some striking similarities with that old sentiment that concern me.
I remember doing a short online course about chronic pain that taught me a range of relaxation techniques to manage the pain, many of which I found did not have much lasting impact.
The pain gate theory also intrigued me, where they said imagine there is a gate in your spine that you can learn to close to stop the pain signals getting through. Seems easy enough to imagine, but all I could manage when going through a particularly nasty flare was an internal scream along the lines: “Shut the damn gate!”
I am a little sceptical as to how optimistic some health professionals are about pain as a subjective experience. While the research they talk about certainly makes sense for people who experience a general injury, for those with a chronic illness, I am not so sure.
Regardless, I think the overriding message is important, which is, find what works for you when it comes to calming the nervous system. Although that is easier said than done ! While some of those earlier techniques I learned have not lasted, I have been finding my own little tricks along the way. I am increasingly mindful of how my body moves and my muscles tense throughout the day, and I find it helpful to consciously spend little moments just breathing that tension out.
There is a lot I can do as an individual, but only so much. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think we need to be careful about how much pressure we put on the individual to manage these issues. To me, the societies many of us live in are chronically ill and not conducive to healthy living. I will focus on what I can control, which will include demanding better health and work systems that promote wellness.
So I am still not quite sure where I sit with all of these ideas about pain. As opposed to being overly optimistic, I prefer to be a hopeful realist who is open to all kinds of possibilities. I always hoped that I would achieve a healthier lifestyle, and I did, even though it took me 20 years to get there. That journey taught me to keep trying and keep hoping.
I no longer obsess over the question about whether the pain will go away, but I live my life with the intention of hoping it will go away and doing the best I can to make that a reality, without putting too much pressure on myself.
Stay Fabulous, Jo.