Chronic Pain

How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point, Part 7

blue hills cropped

**If you are new to my blog and would like to start at the beginning of this series, click here.**  

From the elliptical trainer, we moved on to some very gentle weight lifting and core exercises.

For reasons neither Tim nor I understood, the hospital he worked at had recently made the decision to get rid of all of its weight-lifting machines.  (Who does that?).

So, he explained, we weren’t going to be able to do the full range of exercises he would have prescribed to me a few months earlier.

But he did have me lifting some very light free weights.  During some of these exercises, I would sit on an exercise ball while I lifted, to strengthen my core at the same time.

I also used the arm bike, which I absolutely loved.  It was so freeing to feel all of my back muscles working, in a way that would have been much too painful for me months earlier.

The main purpose of these exercises, however, wasn’t strength-building.  The real purpose was to give my nervous system the chance to experience using my muscles, in a way that didn’t increase pain.


Many of the researchers/writers I read regularly talk about the importance of making a patient feel safe, so his or her nervous system doesn’t feel like it needs to be on guard during an appointment.

Sometimes it is necessary to push through pain in physical therapy.  When my father was in physical therapy after having surgery on his knee, his PT stressed how important it was for him to regain as much flexibility as possible before scar tissue took over.  He would stretch my dad’s leg out as far as my dad could stand it, and use very painful techniques to break up the scar tissue that had already formed.

But when the number one goal of treatment is to calm a wound-up nervous system, it’s important not to cause even more pain during an appointment.  You want the patient to feel totally safe, and not pressure him or her into doing exercises that he or she has apprehensions about.  As long as the person is afraid, even a little bit, his or her nervous system is going to conclude that it needs to stay in protection mode, and it’s not going to relax.

I know I’ve said this in previous posts, but I’m going to stress it one more time: what was so important about my treatment with Tim was that he had taken the time to really talk to me about my exercises, and whether they were safe or not, before actually asking me to do them.

It was a transformative combination: having new information about how my nervous system worked, as well an environment where I felt safe to try new things at a pace I was comfortable with.

It really did work.  I started finding I was able to do a lot more when I was on my own between appointments.  I started going for little walks again, amazed that the same pain that had once built up so quickly was now a quiet murmur.

I started using the elliptical trainer at home.  First I started with ten minutes, as Tim had urged me not to overdo it.  But then I would add one minute on, then two minutes, and then one day I did eighteen.

I started driving to some of the nature trails that are near my house and just getting out of the car and walking, trying not to overthink it.  Instead of watching and waiting for the pain to start, I tried to keep my mind empty and light.  If pain signals entered my mind, then I would focus on them and ask myself “Is this dangerous?”  And I tried to be ok with the answer, whatever I decided the answer was that time.

I didn’t allow myself to push through something that really hurt, because Tim had made me promise not to.  But the amount of time I could walk before it started to hurt became longer and longer.  My walks went from no minutes to five minutes to ten minutes, to fifteen, until on the day of my last appointment I had just gone for a forty-five minute hike.


To be concluded in Part 8!

Top photo courtesy of tinydr on Flickr.

Botton photo courtesy of Boston Photo Sphere.

5 thoughts on “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point, Part 7”

  1. love this series. I especially loved what you said about needing to feel safe at the doctor’s office. Probably wouldn’t hurt when I go in and I know there will be needles or something to think to myself “Am I safe? Yes.” :)

  2. This is a great series! Not only is your story interesting, but it has also taught me new things about fibromyalgia. So next time I’m in a great deal of pain, I need to remind myself “is it dangerous?” For sure it can help with decreasing some of my pain. Keep up the great work! I’m looking forward to reading more. :)

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