‘Embracing the inevitability of discomfort has helped me live with chronic pain’

Sep 28, 2021
Andris says, "We waste our time condemning the messenger." Source: Getty Images

You could be forgiven for questioning my sanity if I told you that I love pain: I consider it as a wonderfully loyal friend. You see, it always visits me and perhaps you too, to signal something else is wrong.

It could be back-pain giving me hell, sciatic pain lingering for months, resulting from disk degeneration and pinched nerves, painful breathlessness eventually forcing a diagnoses and management of a massive pulmonary embolism of which I would have remained completely unaware and which would have killed me soon without the excruciating pain or a hip pain combined with arm pain of the other side, that resulted in my having to take half an hour of ouching manoeuvres, just to be able to get out of my hospital bed for several days.

As a health professional, a social worker and psychotherapist, one of my favourite areas in which I specialised was the natural, psychosocial management of chronic pain. In my last job before my retirement as the senior social worker in the Lithgow Area Health Service, based in the public hospital, I coordinated a healthy lifestyle program for eight years. Part of it were once-a-month workshops in chronic pain management, which I ran together with physios, OTs, nurses and doctors.

My brief included a 1-hour session for people suffering from chronic pain on the topic of our attitudes to pain. I always began the session asking, “Hands up please if you love your pain.”

Typically no hand went up; there were only frowning foreheads, no doubt questioning my sanity.

Then I asked, “Hands up please if you hate your pain.”

Typically, everyone’s hand shot up high.

I continued. “Well, at the end of this session I hope you will love your pain as a loyal friend! Why? Because, if you could not feel pain when you are in real trouble, you could die or at least become seriously more disabled.”

I then asked, “If you turned on the hot plate on your stove, then accidentally you placed your hand on the hot plate and leaned on it without any sensation of pain, what would happen to you?”

People answered reluctantly.

“I could ruin my hand,” was one response.

Believe it or not, it is a fact that some people are unable to feel pain with potentially disastrous outcomes. A genetic cause of a rare inherited condition that leaves people with an inability to feel physical pain has been discovered by scientists.

About one in a million people are thought to be born without a sense of pain, which results in severe self-inflicted injuries from an early age and can lead to premature death.

Yet, we just love to shoot the messenger, the pain. And the more we do this, the worse the pain becomes, both physically and psychologically not to talk about the typical worsening of its neglected underlying cause(s).

Physically: because as we stress out, the muscles tighten up, our breathing tends to become shallower and more sporadic, depriving us from more vitalising oxygen that we could otherwise gain in abundance from slow and deep, relaxed abdominal breathing.

Psychologically: because physical tensing-up tends to contribute to dangerous psychological distress. Shallow, agitated chest breathing tends to translate to psychological stress and panic and a sense of helplessness as we feel our pain worsening. We may turn into increasingly embittered and hopeless pessimists.

We waste our time in condemning the messenger, rather than welcoming it for visiting us to warn us that there must be some underlying conditions, which we are unaware of and are too distracted to find and remedy because of our preoccupation with our hatred of pain.

A great inspiration when I started out as a yoga therapist 30 years ago was for me the internationally recognised Australian Dr Ainslie Meares, the author of some 30 books, including his bestseller Relief Without Drugs. He was one of the first psychiatrists who devised scientifically validated, successful management programs without drugs for chronic pain.

He treated people mainly through meditation, even when the pain inducing underlying conditions persisted for the rest of the lives of his patients.

I became interested in his work, when through my own yoga practices, I learned how to successfully manage my chronic back pain, the chronicity of which is still with me and is likely to persist till my death. If I suspend my maintenance practices for days, I simply could not walk, because of the accumulation of crippling pain.

For 45 years I have been practising integral yoga: physical stretches, deep breathing and deep relaxation, core strengthening practices, meditation and the cultivating of my faith in the power of transcendental love and so on. I also add to these, mountain bike riding three times a week, swimming three times a week and splitting wood every day if I can. As long as I engage in such regular maintenance, I tend to feel pain-free, flexible, physically strong and emotionally cheerful.

I spent a month in a rehabilitation hospital a few years ago with aggravated back pain, a broken scapula and brain haemorrhage after I fell 4 metres from a roof onto the concrete balcony below, landing on my back.

The nurses in the hospital never stopped offering Panadol for my aches and pains and for those of my fellow patients, so I rewrote the ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ song for them and I cheekily made sure to sing it to every nurse who cared to listen:

‘The Panadol Panacea’

Roll out Panadol, we’ll have a barrel of fun,

Roll out Panadol, we’ll have the blues on the run!

Kill, kill, kill the pain, come on! Take more Panadol!

You’ll be an obedient droll, till you’re hooked on Panadol!

Ouch! No Panadol for me thanks, I’d rather keep on laughing

Through belly laugher, I’ll make my own endorphine,

Stronger than morphine, I’m think I’m hooked on laughing,

So let us all laugh together, for laughter is the best medicine!

Do you suffer with pain? What have you done to relieve it?

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