People that know me in real life have seen that over the course of the past ten years, I have often had some kind of physical problem that’s limited my ability to walk, drive, work, or even hang out with friends. Someday when I get brave enough to share this blog with friends and acquaintances, this is probably the first post I’ll want them to read.
There are two major health issues on the table for me right now.
1) Getting back to shape after severe injury
I am perpetually struggling to get my body back to where it was before the injury that ended my running career. I was a long-distance runner in high school, participating in both the cross-country and track teams, when I developed severe compartment syndrome during my junior year. It got to the point where I was unable to walk or even stand for more than a few minutes at a time (forget about running).
My doctor told me I should try conservative methods of treatment before I went the surgery route. I wasted two and a half years of trying to live with compartment syndrome and waiting for physical therapy to help me before I finally decided to have the surgery. The surgery was a breeze and I was up and walking the second day afterwards. My compartment syndrome was gone, but I was left completely out of shape.
Once you lose your body’s equilibrium, it can be hard to get back. I was lucky enough to be born healthy. But everything in the body is connected, and if one part of your body isn’t functioning properly, it is only a matter of time before something else starts to hurt too. This is why I often refer to my health problems as a row of dominoes that got knocked over. Everything’s fine and dandy when all of your dominoes are standing upright in a line, but knock over just one domino, and it triggers a chain reaction. They all fall.
2) A nervous system that’s freaking out
A few months after my surgery for compartment syndrome, I began to feel almost constant pain that migrated through different parts of my body. Although I did have objective measures of pathology (noticeably poor posture, weak muscles, muscle knots), almost every physical therapist I saw would tell me I seemed to be in more pain than other patients they had treated with similar problems. “I don’t know why it hurts you so much… you do have a problem here, but it shouldn’t hurt that much,” was a common refrain.
For years, I dealt with this mysterious pain on almost a daily basis. I spent a lot of time and money seeking out answers from various medical specialists and physical therapists. I also endured a lot of frustration and indignity.
Some of the people I saw were incredibly compassionate, but they didn’t have any real answers for me. Ultimately, most of them ended up telling me they couldn’t explain why I was in so much pain, and asking if I would consider seeing a mental health counselor. Judging by their tentative tones and wide eyes, I could tell that some of them thought something really bad had happened to me in the past.
Others were just flat-out rude. Since most of the people reading my blog have experience with chronic illness themselves, I’m sure you all know the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Finally finding answers
Six years into my battle, I finally found an amazing physical therapist who had been trained in a relatively new approach to chronic pain treatment, called pain neurophysiology education. I’ll be talking about this more in the Calming Your Nervous System section of my blog.
This PT was able to explain to me the changes that had taken place in my nervous system, after all that my body had been through. He explained that sometimes, when the body goes through something that it perceives as traumatic, it can affect the way the nervous system works afterwards. This is known as central sensitization and research is increasingly showing it to be one of the main causes for chronic pain and fibromyalgia.
He was also able to explain to me some new techniques that research is showing can help the nervous system to calm down. These techniques haven’t taken the pain away completely, but my life is a million times better now.
Looking towards the future
I’ve found the best way to move forwards is to learn as much about the body as I can. For one thing, it helps to keep my level of anxiety in check because, if a given part of my body starts to hurt, at least I have some idea of what could be going on. Research has shown that the more knowledge a chronic pain patient has regarding the nature of the nervous system and anatomy in general, the less likely their level of pain is to fluctuate out of control. Patient education is actually one form of (and in my case, the most effective) treatment for chronic pain disorders.
Furthermore, at times when things are calm and I’m not in too much pain, I can actually pause and recognize that what’s happened to me is actually kind of interesting. It’s like the advice that is often given to people trying to meditate: be still inside and observe everything that goes on around you without judgment. Sometimes I am able to apply this philosophy to dealing with my physical problems and, even if for just a moment, detach and become still on the inside.
From that perspective, I can think about how amazing the body is– the millions and billions of cells, the intricate network of capillaries and blood vessels, the delicate wiring of neurons and nerve cells communicating– the human body is a miracle. It’s horrible to be in pain, but the experience of pain, too, is a part of that miracle, and our anatomy can be fascinating. The more I learn about how the body works, the more I have a sense of awe for it, and it is easier for me to switch from anger to appreciation mode.** This is why I recommend everyone learn as much about anatomy and physiology as they can.
**Don’t worry. I also have plenty of days where I am grumpy and cranky and I hate everything. I am less excited to document those on the Internet.