Many years ago when doctors realized I had a spinal cord injury, and the severe pain I was having was caused by it, I was prescribed pain medications. It was a very scary amount and it did little to address the pain. I was also very, very resistant to taking it. Once it was clarified and diagnosed as neurological pain, the medication type and amount was adjusted. I felt some relief. Not gone, but better.
I was categorically told I would not have pain relief from my surgery. The purpose of the surgery was to prevent paralysis. I was still hopeful that I would have pain relief until it was explained that once the pathway to pain has been established for as long as I had been experiencing it, it was unlikely to reverse. The pain, being neurological in nature, had actually changed my nervous system to respond in that way. Controlling the pain was my only solution. There were a lot of very smart doctors in that room that day. I was hearing what they were saying, but finding it very hard to accept.
After my surgery, not only had the pain not gotten any better, I had the additional pain from surgery and nerve root pain. I can't even describe how it felt. I don't want to remember that right now, being so close to my upcoming surgery. Let's just say I was more than willing to accept their theories about pain, and the drugs that go along with it. I had a job to do. I had to learn to walk again so I could go home and be with my family.
Being the stubborn soul that I am, the minute the pain was lessening I started complaining about the amount of drugs I was being given. My neurosurgeon asked the president of the Canadian Pain Management Association, a doctor in Toronto, to see me. He knew he was fighting a losing battle with me but he knew how to fight back. He realized I needed education on this subject, and he wasn't getting through to me. I still had the dream of living pain free without medication.
It was quite a process to get me there. I was not walking at all at that point. An ambulance took me from my bed at Lyndhurst Rehab Centre to downtown Toronto. I was wheeled through the corridors of Mount Sini Hospital where I would spend the better part of the day. Looking back on it, I smile now. They were ready for this feisty Newfoundlander. I would love to have heard his conversion with these doctors beforehand.
There was a team of them, and Barry and I. I saw them one after another, telling my story and how I got to be where I was up to that point. I never missed an opportunity to tell whoever would listen I hated taking medications.
How naive I must have seemed to them. They had my chart, MRI's, the missed opportunities along the way and finally the desperate surgery to try to prevent permanent paralysis.
The truth be told, I was in extreme pain while seeing them, the ambulance ride over damn nearly killed me. Those of you who have been unfortunate enough to have a ride in one know it feels a bit like the back of an old pick up truck. Couple that with lying flat on a hard stretcher and it makes for a very uncomfortable ride.
There was much consulting going on through the day and the "Top Gun" would come by once in a while to check in. Finally, they all sat down with me and Top Gun did the talking. He made it very clear that I would have to learn to embrace the medications I was taking. He laid it out for me like nobody else had ever done. Allowing my body to consider this much pain to be the norm was creating a pattern of pain in the brain that would become permanent. It was very important to control pain of this magnitude, fast,and keep it at bay at all cost. I did not want this to become my new normal. He explained by living as I had without a proper diagnoses set me up for a life time of chronic pain. Now, he said, we have some work to do, and you must be on board.
He did talk about alternatives to medications but said I was far from that at that point. Once we controlled the pain, if they were even going to be able to do that, then and only then could we move on to other methods of controlling pain. He spoke with such certainly, backed by science that he changed my life that day.
I went back to Lyndhurst with a new appreciation for the medication I was taking. They did tweak some of the prescriptions, took away some, added some but the main purpose was accomplished. I was a much more educated and therefore a compliant patient.
It took a few days to get used to the new medications and side affects. Once that happened, I noticed I was able to do much more in the pool and at my Physio appointments. Everyone was happier with my progress. There was actually a pretty substantial difference in the quality of my life and sleep as well. My stubborn attitude about medication had been holding me back.
I knew I had a long road ahead of me so I agreed to make friends with the pills in my hand. Instead of resenting having to take them and spending endless hours fighting it, I agreed it was necessary for that time in my life. I also made a pact with myself that day to be more open minded and respectful to those in the medical profession who obviously knew more about this than I did.
That was my first brush with neuroplasticity and today I read about the Canadian author of The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge. He is proposing that we can change the way the brain perceives pain. It is a complicated process, but it is starting to be researched and soon it we will know more.
What can you do?
- * Learning ways to manage the stress response and reduce the focus on pain helps you manage and function better
- * Movement, exercise, activity done in a sensibly paced way can also help to normalize this heightened pain sensitivity
- * Pain medicines may also help to decrease sensitization in your system
- * New creative hobbies or practices (like photography or meditation) help to use the positive aspects of neuroplasticity to calm and ‘re-wire’ non-painful nervous system connections
- * Learning to reduce this distress response and reduce the focus on pain, especially with persistent pain, is vital to improving your function and returning to normal activities at work and with family
- * In persistent pain, improving your function may require you to re-train the way in which your mind and body interprets and responds to pain.
- * To read more
The mindfulness meditation I do, is based on developing new “habits” which involve neuroplastic changes in the brain. This course which has been taken by over 10,000 Ontarian's now is based on the very premise that we can teach our brains new ways to receive pain. If you live in Ontario and are interested in taking the course or if you would just like to read about it or buy the book, here's the website.
The bottom line is chronic pain is complicated and not the same for everyone but there are things we can do to make a better lives for ourselves we need to be open minded to all of it. Not just the parts of it that we think are good for us. You never know until you try.