Please raise your hand if you’ve ever thought that it’s impossible to live a full life while suffering with chronic pain? It’s not hard to see why because living with chronic pain means you’re hit with a constant, severe and exhausting pain that is unrelenting. You don’t know where it came from, and the pain destroys any abilities, inspirations, creativity & motivation you may have to enjoy and make the most out of your one and only life.
Real life can be challenging at the best of times, let alone when suffering a severe chronic illness like pain that affects every waking moment. Then, when you try to get to sleep, it so often affects that part of your life too.
1 in 5 Australians will suffer chronic pain at some point in their lives - this is very high. But what’s more concerning is that up to 80% of those suffering from chronic pain may also be missing out on effective treatments.
The good news is that living a fulfilling life with chronic pain doesn’t have to be overwhelming. With the right team around you, and the right treatments and management tools at your disposal, you can get back on track and stay on track.
The ‘not so good news’ is that it will take commitment and hard work on your part, but as they say, with the right mindset and team around you, anything is possible.
When we’re done you’ll know exactly what needs to be done to start living your life again.
UNDERSTANDING CHRONIC PAIN
But first, we need to understand a few things: What does it feel like for you living with chronic pain? All pain is unpleasant. But because of its intensity and duration, chronic pain is also physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.
As doctors we are taught that pain is completely subjective, which means that the pain you are experiencing is 100% unique and personal to you. Unfortunately this can make pain difficult to measure and hence, treat. This means the only way doctors can understand your pain is for you to explain what you it feels like in detail. The greater the detail, the better knowledge we’ll have of your pain, what might be causing it and how best to manage it.
Here are some descriptors we hear people use to describe their pain: relentless, burning, numb, sharp, stabbing, like a vice, gnawing, shooting, sickening, cramping, throbbing, hot, dull, aching. These are just a few of the many words that we call ‘pain descriptors’.
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF CHRONIC PAIN ON THE WAY YOU LIVE?
Chronic pain causes you to feel the need to stop & rest your body. Rest is OK for a short time – a few hours or a few days, but chronic pain may cause you to rest for weeks or months, leading to weakness and stiffness. Then when you try and move your body you not only feel the pain but also that weakness and stiffness so you rest your body even more, creating a vicious cycle. Then you wait until the pain is reduced for a short time & then you boom, which means to do as many activities as you can to catch up with what you’ve missed out. This leads to excessive and severe pain, which causes you to bust, which means to rest for long periods again. You are now in a boom-bust cycle.
This is what the boom-bust cycle looks like.
At this point you’re at risk of your body deconditioning, which is what happens to your body after a period of inactivity, bed rest or even just living a more sedentary lifestyle. Deconditioning is a concern because it results in a decline in the physical, functional, psychological, and even social aspects of your life.
You start worrying, you get stressed and anxious. You may get upset, even angry. You begin to lose confidence, you don’t sleep, you get fatigued & you struggle at relationships and work. You get depressed. It feels like everything is falling apart. It feels like you have no control of your life anymore.
This is what the deconditioning cycle looks like.
SHOULD YOU JUST ACCEPT YOU NEED TO LIVE WITH CHRONIC PAIN?
It can take some people a long time living with chronic pain before it’s clear they should see a pain specialist. Usually they have had many types of treatment that don’t help or that only help for a short time such as medication, injections, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and even multiple surgeries.
In fact some of these treatments may actually be the right form of treatment, but have failed because they are not delivered in the right order, at the right time or by the right specialist.
People with chronic pain might eventually get told that ‘there is nothing more that can be done’ to manage the pain or that they ‘need to learn to live with the pain’. This is incorrect. No one should have to deal with chronic pain alone. Pain can usually be managed with the right combination of treatments.
HOW SHOULD CHRONIC PAIN BE MANAGED?
The key to effective pain management is the right combination of treatments, at the right time, delivered by the right team of pain experts.
Research shows that effective pain management is best performed by a team of experts that are coordinated by a senior pain specialist physician – a doctor.
The pain doctor will assess you and then co-ordinate care that may include any or all of the following in different orders:
- Medication combinations to calm down overactive nerve pain
- Injections that help understand where your pain is coming from (diagnostic) and how best to treat it (therapeutic)
- Spinal cord stimulation or neurostimulation (nerve stimulation), which is a modern technique for managing pain that does not respond to standard therapies
- Physical therapies to get your body moving again and strong
- Functional therapies to work on how your body works and moves
- Psychological therapies to give you the ability to cope and manage your pain and stress that you are feeling
- Education steps along the way delivered by all of your pain experts
Could you benefit from seeing a pain management specialist? Ask yourself these 3 questions:
- Is your pain chronic i.e. has it lasted for more than 3 months?
- Is your pain interfering with your life i.e. with your ability to function, do things and enjoy yourself?
- Is your pain difficult to control i.e. have pain treatments given by your GP or specialists or others not helped to reduce your pain?
If you have said yes to all 3, then you should talk to your doctor about getting a referral to a pain management specialist.
With a better understanding now of living with chronic pain, hopefully you feel like you are not alone on this journey. There are specialist teams and a range of options available to help you better manage and control your pain. Remember, living well with chronic pain is possible and even probable with the right team and experts around you.