A frustrated family member asked me this question once, and it really stuck with me. As much as I believe in my own reasons for writing, it kind of freaked me out. What if other people are wondering the same thing?
How can I have an entire series of posts about how my life was changed by a new approach to chronic pain… and also be writing about how sometimes I’m still in pain?
The answer is that there’s no firm end point, no finish line when it comes to “overcoming” chronic pain. It’s not about finding a way to end the pain once and for all, because that may never happen.
It’s about learning to think fluidly. To accept the fact that the pain might not completely end, but to find ways to work with it, and work with yourself, to get to a place of greater understanding.
Before I discovered the approach that I talk about on this blog, I was a complete mess, mentally and physically. I had pain all the time, shifting from one place in my body to another. I could never keep track of it. I’d open a door that was slightly too heavy, and my wrist would hurt for the next two weeks. Had I sprained it? Or was it my body playing tricks on me again?
I’d try to lift weights, hoping to get back to my cross-country self, only to find the bicep curls made my elbows hurt. I’d go to my doctor, or to physical therapy, trying to find out what was wrong, and no one would be able to tell me. “I guess the weight was just too heavy,” was all they would say. But I’d lifted the lightest amount of weight—how was I ever supposed to get stronger?
I was caught in this cycle for years until I met Tim, a physical therapist who had studied pain neurophysiology education with Neil Pearson.
Tim explained to me that the pain in all of these different parts of my body could have a common cause.
The problem wasn’t in the places where it hurt. It wasn’t in my wrist, my elbows, my legs, or wherever else.
It was in my nervous system—that magical grid than ran behind the scenes, underneath everything, connecting. The underpinning of every single experience I had. Somewhere along the line, the system had developed a glitch.
I wasn’t crazy, and my body wasn’t breaking down. There was a problem in the way my nervous system processed the information it was receiving.
Pain neurophysiology education doesn’t teach patients to view the nervous system as an enemy to be beaten back into submission. It isn’t about getting angry at the pain, or fighting the pain.
Instead, this approach helps us to remember that the nervous system is there to protect us. The nervous system isn’t trying to get us into trouble, or to make us look crazy to other people. Really, it’s our friend.
In the past, I could never detach. If something hurt, I felt I had to be vigilant, and focus on every aspect of the pain. If I had injured something, I obviously didn’t want to do anything to make it worse.
This wasn’t my fault, and it wasn’t a sign of “anxiety,” as many people so helpfully suggested. I was reacting in the same way anyone does when something hurts significantly.
What made me different from other people was not my response to the fact that something was hurting– it was how often, and how easily, things seemed to hurt.
Now that I know that my nervous system can send me false information at times, I take more of a wait-and-see approach when something starts to hurt.
Even if I can identify a particular movement that caused the pain to start, I don’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that that particular movement is bad for me. Maybe my muscles are just tight. Maybe I didn’t have great posture when I did it, and if I have better posture the next time, it will be fine.
I don’t rush to do the same thing again—I don’t force my body, I don’t purposely test it. I just wait until it seems natural to try it again, and see. Feel it out.
The thing is, I still have a body that went through what it went through. I still starved it, while running 40+ miles a week. I still got compartment syndrome, and had to have surgery. I still got really weak, in the years I waited to have the surgery, which has in turn caused other problems.
But I guarantee it would all be a lot worse if I hadn’t discovered PNE. The symptoms don’t spread through my entire body anymore. I’m not showing up at my doctor’s every other month with a new pain in a new place.
Now, when I have a new pain, it usually fades away.
Does my wrist hurt because that door was too heavy for me—is it possible that I actually sprained it?
Thanks to PNE, I can wait and see. I carry my things in with my other hand, and I try to go about my business as usual. Usually, within five minutes, I’ve forgotten that it hurt in the first place.