Conquering Chronic Pain
By Michael Hagerty
I suffered from the worst bout of chronic pain in my life a year ago – pain in my spine that was grinding and wouldn’t give me peace, even when I lay down. I was in my bed for days. Every morning I woke and I hoped the pain would be less. Some mornings, the pain did diminish, only to rush back later and mock my hope. Each day this happened, I felt my life was more out of my control, and I got depressed. And each day I stayed in bed, my muscles grew weaker and I lost my self-image as a strong and vibrant man, in control of my life.
Finally, I told myself that I didn’t want to live with this pain for the rest of my life. I had always been careful to spend my money wisely, but what was the point of saving money so I could live longer with this miserable condition? I needed to take whatever actions would bring me relief. Opioid pills? Marijuana? Zero-gravity chairs? Spinal surgery? Get a home health aide?
My first stop was to see my doctor. Physicians can spot problems like tumors, and sometimes they can actually cure the chronic pain. But too often, modern medicine fails to cure chronic pain, as in my case. After X-rays, MRI, and a consult with a spine specialist, she told me that I had two compressed disks that allow the vertebrae to grind against each other and the nerves, and that neither surgery nor injections would help in my case. But she did give me valuable advice. First, she told me that ibuprofen works better than the Tylenol I had been taking to relieve back pain. Second, I should NOT wait to take meds until the pain was already severe. Being a man, I wanted to “tough it out” when possible and take pain meds only when the pain was really bad. She said that is dumb, that I need to “stay ahead” of the pain and take meds before it starts, in the morning. It is much harder to stop pain once it starts.
Third, she told me that the MOST EFFECTIVE cure for back pain is not surgery or opioid pills, but gentle exercise. The American College of Physicians backed her up in February, saying that “the first line of defense should be non-drug and non-surgery.” In fact, a survey of 3,000 back pain sufferers revealed that 89% rated Yoga or Tai Chi as helpful, but only 65% rated surgeons as helpful. 84% rated massage therapy or a chiropractor as helpful, but only 67% said a neurosurgeon helped. And a recent review in the Journal of the American Medical Association of 7300 patients found that opioids fail to provide relief to back pain sufferers, with dangerous side effects of severe constipation and addiction.
So I took her advice, got back on my bike for gentle exercise, and am taking Pilates to help strengthen my muscles and improve my posture. After a month of this, (and ibuprofen when I need it), my severe pain is rare and I feel in control of my life again.
Everyone’s pain is different, but your best chance of conquering your pain is to follow the best evidence we have. First, if you haven’t seen a doctor about your chronic pain recently, you should go to get the latest advice. Second, get gentle exercise for at least 15 minutes per day, every day. Not only is it proven to reduce chronic pain, it stimulates “feel-good” endorphins in the body, and increases strength in aging muscles. Third, check out massage, chiropractors, and acupuncture. Fourth, try out inexpensive home remedies that have been shown to help: heating pads and rub-on creams that contain capsaicin (found in chili-peppers, that stimulate heat and blood flow in the muscles. Finally, try meditation to reduce stress, relax muscles that have tightened up from the pain, and to foster a gentle attitude to our aging bodies.
457-INFO Got a problem, or know a friend who has one? The county has set up a hotline to help with the many problems that seniors face: finding in-home health services, refitting a house with grab bars and safety equipment, protection from elder abuse, housing help, transportation options of those who don’t want to drive, and others: It is: 457-INFO (415-457-4636) from Mon-Fri 8:30am-5:00pm. When you aren’t sure where to turn, this is the FIRST place to turn.