When you lose an arm or a leg, you are bound to get a lot of sympathy from friends and family, and almost everyone else you encounter in your daily life. The missing limb is a visible indicator that you are someone who is suffering, and who is therefore deserving of due consideration in all aspects of life. If however, you are someone like me, who suffers from chronic pain, the sympathy and understanding of those around you are a little harder to come by. I suppose one can’t blame them, beyond a point. After all, if a friend, relative or coworker, constantly complains of overwhelming pain, even though he or she looks perfectly fine, isn’t it natural for you to wonder “What’s he complaining about? He looks like he’s in good shape” or “Everyone gets a backache once in a while. Why’s she making such a big deal about it?” The truth, which every sufferer of chronic pain, including me, is aware of all too well, is that the pain can sometimes be as bad as the pain of losing a limb – particularly if you suffer from complex regional pain syndrome. Not to mention, everyone has a different pain tolerance.
“Pain that one person can manage, another person can find cripplingly intolerable.”
You’ll probably come to understand what I mean better, once I tell you my story, right from the start. For me, it all began when I came home from the Gulf War. I’d sustained a lower back injury during my tour of duty. The pain that I suffered in the weeks and months that followed was excruciating, to put it mildly. Even today, when I look back, I struggle to find words to describe what I went through in those early days – the endless cycle of pain, the ineffective medication, and perhaps worst of all, the lack of any answers from those I turned to. That was perhaps the worst part of it all. The doctors I initially consulted weren’t much help. I even got the impression that they had a hard time believing me because the precise physical location of my pain was difficult to detect.
But there was light at the end of the tunnel after all. A friend of mine advised me to take part in a multidisciplinary pain management program – comprising of healthcare professionals, including physiotherapists, dedicated to improving the quality of life for patients suffering chronic pain. My past encounters with less-than-empathetic healthcare providers had made me a bit apprehensive about the program. But once I sat down for my first meeting with the doctor assigned to me, I was reassured within minutes. The very first thing he told me was the importance of having a positive mental attitude, and not letting the pain consume my life. He also told me the magic words that every patient suffering chronic pain needs to hear.
“You are not imagining this. And you are not alone.”
Unlike the doctors I’d consulted before, the doctors and caregivers who were part of this program knew that one of the most important things for a chronic patient is simply to be believed. Before long, my physical therapy began. My therapist first looked for areas of stiffness and weakness on my body, in order to determine the source of my pain. Once the precise source of my pain was pinpointed, the therapist came up with a treatment plan specially tailored to my needs, to reduce my pain and improve my mobility.
My doctors told me that I would experience some discomfort at the start of my treatment. They told me not to be alarmed by this, as this is the normal pain caused by stretching stiff tissues and using muscles that have been lying dormant. “The pain you feel now is ‘good pain’”, my therapist said to me early on. “Just think of it as the pain you feel after an intense gym session. It means that your work is paying off!”.
The months that followed were a mix of low-impact aerobic exercises, cardio exercises, strength training and lumbar traction. It was hard work, and it took every ounce of discipline I had in me. This is where my military training really paid off! I stuck to the program, followed my therapist’s’ instructions to the T, and meticulously did my workouts without fail.
“Above all, I kept realistic expectations from the process.”
That, I came to realize, was the most important lesson of all. We live in a world where we’re conditioned to expect quick-fixes and instant results. But medicine, particularly physical therapy, doesn’t work that way. Years of chronic pain won’t disappear overnight, just because you’ve spent a few weeks in therapy. Improvements will be incremental and slow to come. But if stay focused, things will inevitably get better, bit by bit. Through all this, it’s important to maintain a positive outlook. Celebrate the smallest of improvements. Let the slightest reduction in pain or improvement in mobility motivate you to redouble your efforts. Above all, never for a moment think about giving up. Today, I still have to live with my pain. But it’s a lot better than it was before I went into therapy. It’s no longer constantly on my mind. It no longer controls my life. It no longer defines who I am. And I’m now convinced that one day (it won’t be tomorrow, it may not be next week, it probably may not even be next year), I’ll be completely rid of the pain.