I’m writing this while wearing my neck TENS unit that also has electrodes snaking down to my shoulders. I have been in a pain flare for weeks. We are talking days upon days of pure, undiluted flare. I can’t remember the last time I felt this rocky for so long.
My absence from this blog has been spent just trying to get through the work day without being crushed by my own body. I broke down and took the heavy medications I save for truly bad days, and they did nothing to relieve the pressure. All three levels of my spine are throbbing with different ailments: tension and shooting pain in my neck, head, and shoulders; pulsing rib pain around my trunk; and rickety bones setting off sciatic jolts in my hips and legs. Is it the heat? The constantly-changing weather? The humidity? Work stress? Sitting for too long? Inhaling while turning too quickly? Who the hell knows.
What does it mean to flare? A flare is when your normal pain suddenly magnifies for whatever reason. Breakthrough pain occurs when medications fail to cover the pain itself, and the pain “breaks through.” End-of-dose failure is when the pain medications only cover four hours instead of, say, eight. We must plan for these eventualities. We must also decide whether these are new ailments or just our normal underlying problems.
How do you discern that, though? How does one say, “Oh, this back pain is the back pain I’ve lived with for a decade” and be sure that something squirrely isn’t happening as well?
New symptoms become a source of fear. Is it just a headache, or is your fibromyalgia becoming more creative in its illustration? Are your hands just stiff, or is your rheumatoid arthritis getting worse? Is it intense back pain or a kidney infection? We become scientists, turning our microscopic focus inward to splice apart what pain is normal and what pain is not.
The worst part is that flares can last for weeks or even months. What can we do to mitigate these pain flares when they arise?
- Sleep more.
- Rest more.
- Bow out of some activities in order to rest.
- Protect your body when lifting, moving, walking, etc.
- Low-impact exercise (swimming, yoga, Tai Chi, etc.).
- Warm baths.
- Paraffin wax (I actually own one of these wax units and use it when my hands are particularly bad).
- Maintain positivity, even when all you want to do is murder everyone.
Pain is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness: it makes us suddenly aware of everything in the environment. It brutally draws us into a virtual sensory awareness of the world, much like meditation.
Pain can become a tool. Instead of it controlling us, we can wield it and use it to find a greater understanding of ourselves. We can discover our absolute limits and push beyond them. We can become more than we ever dared.
That’s why I signed the U.S. Pain Foundation’s pledge. Their mission is “[t]o connect, inform and empower those living with pain while advocating on behalf of the entire pain community.“ Advocacy is one of the only true ways that we chronic pain patients can help ourselves. I am going to get involved to the best of my ability, because I am more than this pain. I will not let my pain define me. And I will not let this flare get the best of me.