The doctor who *almost* helped me (How I developed central sensitization, Part 6)

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Okay, so here’s the story of the time I thought I’d found the right person to help me, which of course, made it all the more disappointing when it didn’t turn out to be the case.

In telling my story, I’m choosing to gloss over every little ache and pain I had; every time I thought I had some kind of injury, but no one could actually find anything wrong.  It’s not really necessary to the story, and I don’t want you to get bogged down in negativity.  The point, again, is that I did eventually find answers.

But here’s the story of the first time I thought I’d found them.

***

It was 2006; my first time seeing a physiatrist.  Physiatrists are doctors who specialize in non-surgical options to treat musculoskeletal pain– so, basically, they do everything else.  Their approach is generally thought to be more holistic.  They can provide options such as lidocaine and cortisone injections, but they also look at the patient as a whole person and can recommend lifestyle changes as well.  It’s a pretty cool specialty.

And I was pretty much seeing the best one.  I loved Dr. V. the first time I saw her.  She’d won all kinds of awards for going above and beyond to help her patients.  And she was just so… nice.  She provided me with so much hope.

Dr. V. reassured me that there was no reason, as a healthy person in my early 20’s, I shouldn’t be able to do all of the things I wanted to do.

She recommended a bunch of promising options, including trigger point injections, as well as medical acupuncture, which she actually performed herself.

And she was the first person to really explain to me that my brain was magnifying the sensations of pain I felt, “like a computer.”  My brain was “zooming in” and making what should be a small problem, or no problem at all, look like a big problem.

For a time, I really thought Dr. V. was going to be the one to finally “fix” me, to finally reverse this impossible pattern I’d been dealing with for so long.  I felt like she really got me.

***

Dr. V. seemed to understand that, from time to time, I would come in with pain in a new part of my body, and would need someone to tell me whether, in fact, I had an injury or whether it was just pain.

There were so many times. I felt safe; I felt believed.  I just needed a place to go where someone could tell me whether or not I had an injury or not.  I didn’t always need to be referred to physical therapy, or start some new treatment.  Sometimes, the pain would just diminish once someone actually told me it was safe to ignore it.  (Which, as I later learned, makes 100% sense once you learn about how the nervous system works).

The only thing is, Dr. V. did want to refer me elsewhere: to therapy.  She seemed to understand that my brain was distorting my perception of pain, but she kept coming back to the idea that it had a psychological or emotional cause (which, I would later learn, is not a prerequisite for central sensitization).

She offered me the names of a few different therapists she had come into contact with over the years.  I would go and see them, but nothing ever really “clicked.”  Because we were looking for something that wasn’t there– my pain wasn’t being caused by my emotions.

***

What I really needed, again, was for someone to help me understand my physical pain.  As I’ve explained in my Calming Your Nervous System section of this blog, when you have the kind of chronic pain I had (and still have, to an extent) it’s like your body’s pain protection system has gone into overdrive.  It’s trying to protect you, but it’s stuck in the “on” position all the time.

Luckily, the nervous system is complex, and although there are multiple components involved in keeping this process going, there are other aspects of the nervous system which can be used to turn the system “off.”

One way to do that is to understand, rationally, that your body isn’t actually in danger; that you aren’t actually injured.  This is actually the pain principle behind Pain Neurophysiology Education, the approach to chronic pain treatment that finally helped me.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but I sort of stumbled upon this principle myself.  A new part of my body would hurt (or an old one would start hurting again) and it would feel real.  It would feel like something was wrong; something was injured or on the verge of breaking.

That’s why it helped me, to go in and see Dr. V.  To be examined by an actual doctor and be told nothing was wrong.  It helped my nervous system feel “safe” again.  Usually, I’d start feeling better within a day or so after my appointment, before I even got to physical therapy or whatever next treatment she’d recommended.  Because she’d already given my nervous system permission to relax and stop hyper-focusing on that part of my bod.  The pain would be able to fade into the background.

And I was okay with this pattern.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than anything I’d found yet.  We hadn’t actually been able to break this cycle of mysterious pain that roamed throughout my body, but at least, with Dr. V. I’d been able to find a way to stop it from taking over my entire life when it started to get bad.

***

But here’s the thing.  I was okay with the holding pattern, but Dr. V. was not.  Because I wasn’t actually getting “better” in a linear fashion that she could write in her notes.  And because she could never actually find anything wrong with me.

There was one day I was 10 minutes late for an hour long appointment.  I’d had to take the Red Line to Mass General, where I saw her, and everything about that morning commute had just been a disaster.

And from the moment she walked into the room, everything had changed.  Her face seemed cold, like there was less color in it than usual.

And she told me she didn’t have time to see me that day.  That I’d been taking time away from her other patients; other patients who actually had horrible diseases and disfigurements and reasons to be in pain.

She said she’d tried to help me, but I hadn’t successfully utilized any of the options she’d given me.  And that if I wasn’t going to be responsible about trying to fix my issues, she wasn’t going to have time for me in the future.

And that was that.  I started to cry and attempted to explain myself, but it didn’t matter.  Her mind was made up.

She said she didn’t have time to stay and talk to me if I’d already missed 15 minutes of our 30 minute appointment.   Her secretary, who I’d sort of become friends, with overheard the whole thing and took my side, poking her head into the room and gently reminding Dr. V. that my appointment was actually supposed to be an hour.

But it didn’t matter; Dr. V. was so angry at that point that no new information was going to make a difference.  It wasn’t really about the time; it was about getting rid of me.

She didn’t outright tell me never to come back and see her again, but by walking out of the room after 5 minutes, she’d made her message pretty clear.

So I never did.

***

Now that I know so much more about central sensitization, I can see that Dr. V. was wrong on multiple levels.  This is why I like to remind people that central sensitization was actually discovered in rats.  It has to do with brain function and neurons and neurotransmitters, not thoughts and feelings.

Somehow, it was like Dr. V. had vaguely heard of central sensitization somewhere, but hadn’t really gotten the full gist.  A lot of people are like that, actually.  They accept that the nervous system can process pain abnormally, but still think it must have to do with emotions.

And I never actually heard the term from her.  I only learned it once I requested a copy of all of my visit notes and saw it there, in my list of diagnoses.  It was #1: central sensitization.

That whole time– she could have just told me the name for it.  I didn’t even know there was one.  I could have learned about it myself– I could have Googled it.  It was discovered in 1983.  There was more information out there than I was given.

But no.  Central sensitization was just there in two small words, right under a lot of passive-aggressively worded comments about exactly how much of my appointment time I’d missed that last time.

***

It’s sad and it’s really shocking.  I do believe that Dr. V. is a good person who just didn’t have enough information, and who got frustrated.

But it shouldn’t be my job, to get “fired” as a patient and request my own office visit notes, only to finally learn there’s a scientific name for what I was going through that she’d never even bothered to tell me.

I could have looked it up myself and learned about it, instead of going on countless wild goose chases to psychotherapy and the terribly disappointing pain clinic she once sent me to.

***

But at least I have answers now, and you know what?  I think I’m sort of proud of myself for getting as far as I did, on my own.  After all, it basically means I’m a genius, since I was able to stumble upon the main principle of pain neurophysiology education all on my own (right?).

***

As you may know, what really did work for me eventually was to meet a physical therapist who had studied PNE with Neil Pearson.  This physical therapist taught me how to understand my nervous system, and to work with it, instead of against it, and to learn ways to get my body to turn the “volume” of the pain back down.

This is why I feel so, so strongly about PNE, and why I was originally inspired to become a physical therapist.

In a way, Dr. V. is part of my inspiration as well– I see how important it is for healthcare practitioners to actually understand the specifics of how chronic pain works.  It’s not enough to just be an empathetic person, because apparently empathy can be replaced by frustration over time, if a patient isn’t getting better.

If you want to know more about PNE, you can check out the Calming Your Nervous System section of my blog, and also definitely check out the work of Neil Pearson!

Hope this was helpful!

Healing our bodies, and the things that ripple across generations

IMG_3999

A little over a year ago, I started a second blog to focus on what I’d come to think of as this weird hip problem I’d had for years that no one seemed to understand (sacroiliac joint dysfunction).

Among friends, I usually tried not to talk about it too much, because I didn’t think anyone else would want to hear about it.  Sometimes I wondered if it was all in my head, since so many of the doctors and physical therapists I’d seen didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.  I was embarrassed to tell people about it, since only my chiropractor seemed to believe it was a real problem (and you know how skeptical I am about most things alternative health).

I started My Sacroiliac Joint Saga one warm day in May.  I’d had an absolutely awful day, and was just about reaching my breaking point with this problem and thinking I might need surgery.  I didn’t really think anyone would want to read what I wrote, but I left it set to “public” just in case.

But a funny thing happened.  Once I actually gave myself permission to focus on the issue, instead of judging myself for it, I found I had a lot more time to problem solve.

I used the mental energy I’d once devoted to questioning myself instead to research the problem from every possible angle.  Not everything I read was helpful to me, but by giving my full energy to the problem, instead of wondering if I was crazy, I ended up finding the answers I needed.

And it turned out there were people out there who were familiar with this problem– patients who had experienced it themselves, and doctors and PT’s who treated patients with it, and were even contributing to research on the problem.  I just hadn’t had the luck to come across any of them.  Looking back, I think the reason why is that I stopped searching too soon.

***

Last spring, I wrote a post called “Inner Limits,” about how I was coming to realize my past with an eating disorder was haunting me more than I knew.

Internally, I had set certain limits for myself on how much time or energy I was willing to spend focusing on fixing a “problem” with my body, and so I held myself back.  I did my exercises, I went to the chiropractor once or twice a week, I maybe read one or two articles a month on it, but that was it.  Other than that, my main focus was sticking to my routine, as if pretending I didn’t have a problem could somehow limit the effect it had on my life.

But really, as I wrote in the post, there was more I could do.  I could do more exercises; I could do more stretches.  I could spend an hour a day researching, if I really wanted to.  I had the time… for some reason, I just wasn’t.  Because I was afraid to devote my full attention to it.

Funny, right?  Here I’d been working on this blog about my journey with central sensitization, and how much it took me to find answers for it, and how for so long I’d felt misunderstood when I had a legitimate medical issue.   One of the main messages of Sunlight in Winter has always been “Believe in yourself.  Your pain is real and you deserve help.”

And yet here, the same patterns were playing out with my sacroiliac joints.  Deep down, despite what I’d already been through, part of me was still afraid that if I fixated too much on my body, and trying to “change” it, it would trigger the same level of obsession that drove my years of starvation and overexercising.  So I held myself back.

***

I haven’t written much about my family history on this blog, and I probably won’t say more than this anytime soon.  But in the past few years, I’ve come to realize that some of these thought patterns of self-doubt didn’t start with me.  Often we learn them from somewhere– usually, consciously or not, from our families.  These patterns can be passed down, and I think they very much were in my case.  There were things that happened in my family long before I was even born, that sent out ripples across generations.

I realize now that I have been on a long road– not just with my health, but with learning to believe in myself; to trust myself.  There were events that occurred in my family, long before I existed, that have affected my life and my ability to believe in myself.

Now that I’m aware of how the past has been affecting me, I’m learning to see things differently; to create my own future and way of seeing things that’s healthy, and works for me.

I won’t always be able control what my body does (I’m sure anyone reading this blog can relate to that!).  But I can control the way I see myself, and I don’t have to let health issues affect my self-perception.  Just because a doctor can’t give me an answer for something, it doesn’t mean the problem is in my head.  It doesn’t mean my problem isn’t real.  I can’t make a problem worse by “dwelling” on it when what I’m actually doing is researching and trying to find answers.

***

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.  I believe that, most of the time, the best thing we can do is to try to make meaning out of something for ourselves, whatever that turns out to be.

I don’t know if all my health issues happened for a reason, but now that I look back, I  know this common thread was there all along.  Compartment syndrome, central sensitization, sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

All of these problems were real; all of them were hard to get diagnosed, and hard to find the right treatment.  But for each problem (and I know I’m fortunate in this) there were eventually answers out there.

I know this is not true for everyone who writes under the “Spoonie” banner, but for me, my major health issues have all turned to be manageable.  There were answers out there, and I probably would have found them sooner if I had taken myself more seriously, and believed in the possibility of finding answers.  Or, I should say, the possibility of being understood.

***

Over the past weekend, My Sacroiliac Joint Saga hit 10,000 total page views.  I still can’t believe this blog I started a year ago as a somewhat embarrassing side project has grown to this extent, and helped so many people.  (And I know this because of all your kind comments and messages– thank you!).

And, aside from page views, 2016 Me still can hardly believe how fortunate I’ve been to finally find answers to this problem.  When I was at my breaking point that day in May, getting better wasn’t something I could really even picture.

So let this be a reminder to me, and to you if you’re reading this, to never let our health issues change the way we see ourselves.

We are so much more powerful than we realize… we just have to be able to see it in ourselves.

IMG_4091

 

 

Maybe my weaknesses aren’t weaknesses. Maybe they are strengths.

21105481_938749316908_3692232005439858376_n

When I first started this blog back in 2012, I kept it largely a secret from the people in my life.

I wanted to help people struggling with the same things I’d been through, but I was afraid of the consequences of putting so much personal information online.

After all, wasn’t putting a long list of all my health issues, and detailing my sometimes-inability to get through work or school just giving potential future employers a reason to not hire me?

But as time has gone by, I’m starting to see things differently.

***

Now, this post isn’t meant to be just about me.  I’m not trying to come on here and just brag about how great I am.

But the more I write, and read other blogs, and interact with other people sharing their own stories, the more I realize just how much courage it can take to really face the cards you’re dealt, and try to make the best of a rough situation.

And that maybe, just maybe, other people will be able to see that about you.

***

I stumbled upon a J.K. Rowling quote recently that I really loved:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

We are more than the sum of what our bodies can or can’t do.  I believe we all come into this life with certain lessons to learn and challenges to face, and physical limitations are one way in which we do that.

However, we can’t always count on others to immediately understand, or know what we are going through.

Which has led me to wonder…

What if we told our stories more, not less?

Will a future employer really look at my blog and count up the number of times I said I wasn’t feeling well?  Or will they look and see that I love to write, and that I’m doing my best to explain scientific concepts to a general audience, in the hopes that it might help others?

Will they really go through and count the number of years it’s taken me to get through all of my grad school prerequisites?  (Well, probably).  But, if they read through some of my posts, they should be able to see that, on the subject of chronic pain, I’ve basically already been to grad school.

A different kind of grad school, maybe, but I think you can certainly call what I’ve been through “Advanced Study.”

I speak from experience… I practice what I preach.

IMG_3106

I’ve been trying to get more comfortable with putting photos of myself up online… here’s a nice dark blurry one!

***

I’ve had a number of misunderstandings recently with people I care about.  The misunderstanding arose because I thought they already knew my perspective and what I was going through, and then it turned out they didn’t.

It’s led me to the realization: how can I expect people to know if I don’t tell them?

Maybe keeping quiet and assuming people will be able to read between the lines isn’t the right thing.  I generally try not to complain… but I’m starting to realize that maybe I’ve taken it too far, into not actually sharing my reality with others (funny, because I CERTAINLY share it online!).

My new goal, going forward, is going to be to speak my truth, honestly and compassionately.  And if chronic pain is part of my truth, then I will not filter it out. If people are truly going to understand me and where I’m coming from, maybe they actually need to know.

***

Part of what’s helped me get to this point is that I’ve recently discovered so many great writers/bloggers/poets, who have put into words not just what I’m feeling, but a place, emotionally, where I feel I ought to be going, if that makes sense.  I didn’t know it was my goal, or what lay ahead, but when I saw someone else put it into words, I recognized it.  My next lesson; my next place.

I had so many quotes I wanted to share with you in this post, however I’ve settled on this one from the amazing writer/poet Bianca Sparacino.  I discovered this quote from her a few months ago and it’s had a profound impact on me ever since:

bianca sparacino express.jpg

 

I want my communication to be clear, focused, and kind.  I want my words to reflect the truth.

Those of us struggling with chronic pain don’t want to complain.  We don’t want to overwhelm others with negativity.   However, we also need to remember that the people in our lives are not mind-readers.

If you really want to share your story with people, you can’t edit parts out.  It might be a temporary solution, but it only lasts for so long, before your longing to be understood will re-surface.

So instead of telling the truth by accident, or when we feel we have no other choice, why not just… say it?

 

 

How I developed central sensitization: Part 5

For a few years, I was stuck: caught between all of the doctors I saw, who thought there was something wrong with me psychologically, and the fact that deep inside of me was a calm, inner voice that knew it just wasn’t true.

***

Feeling as though I’d run out of other options, I became really interested in alternative medicine.

I still wanted an explanation for my pain that had something to do with my physical body.

I wanted to be seen; I wanted to be heard: I wanted to be believed.  And the alternative medicine practitioners I saw were able to provide me with that validation.  They believed me– of course the traditional doctors hadn’t been able to solve my problem.

***

For a while, I went a little bit off the deep end.  I read just about every book I could find on energy healing.  I started taking turmeric capsules instead of Advil; I bought crystals.

I began to see traditional medicine as somewhat of a sham, propped up by the pharmaceutical companies.  And I thought anything that fell under the heading of “alternative” medicine had to be good.

***

I had a lot of reasons to reject the “establishment” view.  The establishment, after all, is what failed me.  I’d slipped through the cracks, so many times; the safety nets I’d counted on had turned out to have holes in them.  Of course, it made sense that what was “traditional” had failed me again.

***

Now, I don’t want to offend anyone by insulting or dismissing an approach that has been helpful for them.  But if I were to give you the complete list of everything I tried, well, just about every “alternative” treatment is on it.

However, the truth is that nothing I tried worked, and all of it cost me a lot of time and money.

Looking back, there were definitely times when I must have been “that crazy person,” insisting to people that they try this same new treatment I was doing, or that they consider the fact that their headaches or thyroid problem could be entirely caused by blocked energy flow in the body.

My views have changed a lot since then– the science classes I’ve taken have opened my eyes to just how much we really do know, using “regular” science.

But I still have a lot of empathy for the “crazy” people, because I was one.  I know how easy it is to believe a convincing claim from a caring person who probably genuinely thinks they’re going to to help you.  Especially if you don’t have much of a scientific background.

I used to believe some crazy shit I’d be really embarrassed to admit to you now.

That’s why, even though my perspective has changed, I don’t believe in shaming people, or embarrassing them, for trying to do something to heal themselves.  Everyone is on their own path… and some of our paths can get a bit convoluted.

***

I’m not trying to say that alternative medicine doesn’t help anyone.  I believe there are some treatments that are probably more legitimate than others (for example, acupuncture has been shown to have some pretty significant effects for pain relief, although evidence suggests it may be more due to the body releasing endorphins in response to a needle than anything else).

But at the end of the day, I was struggling from the effects of central sensitization, which none of these belief/treatment systems had any means of addressing.  There’s no way any of these treatments were going to help me, because even my original “diagnosis” was always wrong.

I felt better, emotionally, when I was given an explanation that had to do with my physical body… but ultimately, all of the treatments fell short.

After all, there was no way any school of thought was going to help me, if it didn’t even have a name for my problem.

To be continued in Part 6!

To read this series from the beginning:

Learning about central sensitization: the power of naming, and the future of pain treatment

IMG_3204

Whew.

I have really enjoyed writing my more personal posts recently– I love to tell a good story, and to feel as though my past experiences have some meaning.  (And I’ve really appreciated all your kind words, comments, and shares!).

But also, wow– some of those posts were very emotional for me.  Right now I’m kind of feeling the need to come up for some air.

So let me back up for just for a minute, and talk about some of the things I’m optimistic about, in terms of the big picture in treating chronic pain.

The more we know about central sensitization and the way pain works:

It gives us the power to name things.  

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  Sometimes, there is a healing power that comes just from being able to put a name to something; to receive a diagnosis, and know that you aren’t the only one.

As I explained in my last post, when I finally learned the term central sensitization, it helped me to feel validated, and so much less alone.

Sometimes healing can come not from completely “fixing” your condition, but from being able to make meaning out of it for yourself; constructing a coherent narrative that makes sense.

And of course, it’s much easier to make sense out of something when you actually know what it is.

Having an actual diagnosis can help us explain ourselves to others

At least, I assume it does.

As I have mentioned in past posts, the truth is that I have often struggled to articulate what’s happened to me in the people in my life.

Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t really have an explanation that made sense for it myself, for most of the time, or that even now that I have an explanation, it’s a condition that’s still fairly unknown.

This is why I am doing my best to raise awareness and get the word out.

The more we, as a society, understand about pain, the more treatments we can develop.

There is just so much to say here.  The more I learn about pain, the more and more I realize I don’t know.  It’s really such a fascinating subject.  I try to talk about some of the highlights on my blog, just to give you a sense of how broad the subject really is.

But in a nutshell, our growing scientific understanding of pain can lead us to all sorts of new treatments, such as:

New pharmacological approaches: I’ve recently discovered Gracie Gean’s Youtube channel, and her story about receiving ketamine infusions to treat CRPS.  I totally recommend checking it out!

Brain imaging and biofeedback: I’ve written before about the work of Christopher deCharms and others at Stanford University, who use functional MRI to teach patients to mentally “turn the volume down” on their pain.

Pain neurophysiology education

And of course, once you understand that pain is one of your body’s protective responses– it’s actually there to keep you safe, not make you miserable– this can help you learn to work with it, not against it.

This is the premise of pain neurophysiology education, which I talk about in the “Calming Your Nervous System” section of my blog.

When I was in the midst of my struggle, I happened to find a physical therapist who had taken a PNE course with Neil Pearson, and that was the moment things really changed for me.

I learned to view my pain not as an automatic indicator that something was wrong or broken in my body, but as my body’s attempts to protect me.  And, each time something hurt, it was possible my body was overreacting, like a jumpy alarm system, or an overprotective friend.

This helped me to mentally take a step back when things began to hurt, and re-evaluate what I intellectually thought the pain was likely to mean.  And even just realizing that I had the ability to do this– that pain didn’t always have to mean something was wrong– helped me to begin to end the cycle I’d been caught in.

So, that’s all for now.

I’ve got a bunch of posts planned for the next few weeks that I’m really excited about.

I’ve also recorded a podcast interview with Matthew Villegas for The Capable Body Podcast about my experience with pain neurophysiology education.  Although I was afraid I sounded super awkward, Matt assures me the episode will be good!  It should be coming out sometime in September– I’ll be sure to let you know when it does.

Stay tuned!

 

 

How I developed central sensitization, Part 4

I began to wonder if something about the compartment syndrome and the leg surgery could have changed something in my chemical makeup, weakening my body and depleting its healing response.

After all, pain was supposed to be my body’s way of telling me that I was injured.  Something was broken; something was wrong.

Time and time again, I’d go to see a doctor, and they wouldn’t be able to find anything wrong.  My elbow was fine; my wrists were fine.  One of my shoulder muscles had a knot the size of a pea, but according to the pain specialist I saw, it  “shouldn’t be causing this much pain.”

It was honestly so, so frustrating.  I really started to think there was something wrong with me that doctors just couldn’t find.  Something wrong in my tissues; maybe some kind of problem with inflammation.

***

My primary care doctor back home started to think there was something wrong with me psychologically; that maybe this was depression, or anxiety.

But her suggestions just didn’t resonate with me.  I’d been depressed before.  I knew what it felt like, and this wasn’t it.  As much physical pain as I was in, I was still in so much less pain, emotionally, than I’d been in as a teenager.

After all, I’d been through a time when it felt like daggers just to breathe; when I was so exhausted from trying to make it through the day that the walk from my parents’ driveway into the house seemed so far I might not make it, and I had to rest in my car.

I’d been through all that, and it hadn’t resulted in physical pain like this.  In fact, my body had been at its peak, running faster and faster.

Now I’d come out of all of that– the clouds had finally lifted, and for the first time, I felt like knew what I wanted out of life.  I was enjoying my classes, and the fact that I was meeting so many like-minded people.  I felt like we were all going to graduate and change the world together.  Finally knew what it felt like to be happy, when before it had been just a word.

How could depression be causing this debilitating pain now, when it never had before?   Apart from the pain itself, I was actually happy with my life now.  It didn’t make any sense.

To be continued in Part 5.

To start from the beginning of this series:

 

Shedding light on central sensitization

Hi everyone!  Hope you’re all having a great summer.

I just wanted to let you know that I recently added a new section to my blog, to focus on central sensitization.

When I began this blog in late 2012, I started out writing about the topics of chronic pain and fibromyalgia, terms which most of my readers are more familiar with.

However, over time, it became more and more important to me to focus on some of the scientific research that’s been shedding light on the nervous system phenomena behind chronic, persistent pain.

Central sensitization has had a huge impact on my own life, one that’s stretched far beyond the initial injuries that caused me to develop it in the first place.  (Basically, central sensitization occurs as a response to some sort of trauma to the body, leaving the person with a heightened sensitivity to pain long after any physical injuries have healed).

I’ve recently begun to tell the story of “How I developed central sensitization.”  It’s a series posts about how, after years of abusing my body as a high school athlete with an eating disorder, I finally stretched my nervous system to the breaking point.

I’ve also written a series on my experience with pain neurophysiology education, an approach to physical therapy that taught me to better manage my condition.

These stories are incredibly personal to me, yet I really believe that central sensitization is an under-recognized problem, and I’m determined to raise awareness.  It took me years of suffering before I even knew the name of my condition (or was able to get help treating it), and it shouldn’t have to be that way.

So on my blog, I’ll be telling stories from my own personal experience, well as highlighting some of the articles, research and researchers that I find inspiring and noteworthy.

I’ll still be writing about chronic pain and fibromyalgia, recognizing that there are many factors that contribute to each patient’s experience with these conditions.

Ultimately, I believe that the more we know as patients, the better we can advocate for ourselves.  That is why I believe so strongly in raising awareness of this issue, both in terms of the scientific discoveries being made, as well as sharing the impact it’s had on my own life.

Here are some of the posts I’ve written on central sensitization so far:

What is central sensitization?

The nervous system and chronic pain

How I developed central sensitization: Part 1

How I developed central sensitization: Part 2

How Clifford Woolf discovered central sensitization (and why you shouldn’t blame yourself for chronic pain)

Central Sensitivity Syndromes

Todd Hargrove: Seven Things You Should Know About about Pain Science

Let’s give this a whirl: explaining a scientific article in plain English

All of these, of course, are listed on my new “Central Sensitization” page.

Other great links:

Central sensitization in chronic pain (from Paul Ingraham at PainScience.com)

Dr. Sean Mackey: An Update on Fibromyalgia (really interesting talk from a Stanford researcher on the role of central sensitization in fibromyalgia).

and a lot more within my “Resources” section (if you haven’t swung by in a while, I’ve been adding a lot to it).

***

I hope the things I write and link to are helpful to you.  As always, you’re welcome to contact me with any comments or questions.   (You can comment below or send me an email!).  Happy reading!

How I developed central sensitization: Part 2

Continued from Part 1

My doctor said I had what was called “glass back” syndrome.  Every muscle, from my neck to my lower back, was locked in spasm.  Even the smallest movement could set off a domino effect, each muscle triggering the next, until my entire back would feel like a blaze of pain.  I was so sensitive to movement, it’s as if I was made of glass.

The only time of day when things didn’t hurt was when I first woke up in the morning.  For those few seconds before I moved, I would feel okay.  Then, when I turned to roll out of bed, bam!  The blaze of pain would return.

I learned to keep my bottle of painkillers next to me when I slept.  That way, when I woke up, I didn’t have to reach very far for a pill.  I would gingerly edge my fingers along the mattress, grab the bottle and open it.

That would be it– the only motion I’d perform.  Reach over, take out a pill, put it in my mouth, swallow.  And then wait until I felt it set in; everything would become dull, and a little less horrible.  I was a little farther inside myself, but at least I was also farther away from the pain.

Tramadol, Tylenol, Advil, and a muscle relaxer.  And Bengay cream.  And heating pad at night.  These were all the things I needed to make it through– if you can call it that.

***

Part of what made it worse is that I was treating my back pain like it was a running injury.  That was the only type of injury I’d had before, and with all of those injuries, the important thing was to rest.

I later learned that with a back issue such as this (it wouldn’t be accurate to call it an injury) it’s actually really important to move, and strengthen the back muscles.  To an extent, you have to keep moving in spite of the pain, because if your muscles get weak, things only get worse.

But I was young, and I didn’t know.  In fact, I was tough; I was an athlete.  I’d never had “injuries” before that hadn’t been caused by a serious amount of force travelling through my body, my feet pounding into the pavement at sub-6-minute mile pace.

I was not at all familiar with this kind of pain– the kind of pain that kept spiraling beyond my grasp, beyond my wildest efforts to control it.  The kind of pain that seemed to be caused by almost nothing.

So, I thought, I needed to rest.  That’s what I’d done for all my previous injuries.  I didn’t want to strain anything, or break anything.  With this amount of pain, rest.

***

In the midst of this, I was due to start at the new school I had transferred to; a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts.  I contemplated not going, but ultimately I decided to take the plunge. I didn’t want to miss out on yet another experience.

Luckily, I could physically make it to class– the campus was walkable, and my legs had healed completely from the surgery.

But a lot of the time, I couldn’t concentrate.  I remember being in class knowing I was feeling the exact moment when my last dose of tramadol wore off, counting down the minutes until I could go back to my dorm room and take another.

And then, once I was safely back in my room, I’d briefly fall asleep.  Not from the tramadol (my body got used to it after a while) but from the sheer exhaustion of trying to stay awake through something so excruciating.  It was as though my conscious mind needed a break from experiencing this much pain, and sleep was the only way out.  So I’d fall asleep, and leave reality behind for a little while.

***

The way out, as I learned in physical therapy, was to get out of bed and keep moving as much as possible.  I started going for walks– long walks, which I might have once thought impossible before my leg surgery.  This, as my PT explained, helped to increase blood flow, flushing out some of the pain-producing chemicals in muscles, and also “acting like a giant heating pack from the inside,” helping the muscle to relax.

Additionally, I started doing specific exercises to strengthen my back muscles.

And you know what else?  I took my painkillers.

***

Contrary to what you might expect, my doctor at school totally understood what I was going through and encouraged me to actually take the full amount of tramadol she had prescribed (up to 6 pills a day), if it would help me move more.

From her, I had my first real experience with understanding pain science.  She explained that, with “glass back syndrome,” the pain sort of became its own cycle.  As the muscles would spasm and create pain, this would actually cause all of the other nearby muscles to tighten up as well, to protect the area.

The painkillers, it turned out, were actually helpful in reducing those pain signals telling the muscles to spasm.  When I took them, I was able to go for walks, and do my exercises, and get stronger.

(This experience is one reason why I will always believe in the power of prescription pain medication to help chronic pain patients.  Without it, I truly believe my recovery would have taken much longer).

***

Eventually, my back got stronger, and the all-encompassing muscle spasms finally stopped.  I found I no longer needed the tramadol, and I stopped that too.

However, though my “glass back syndrome” eventually subsided, the pain would never fully go away.

To be continued in Part 3!

How I developed central sensitization: Part 1

Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time: the story of how I personally developed central sensitization.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware that central sensitization occurs as the result of some sort of insult to the central nervous system.  Basically, if the body gets enough practice sending pain signals, it gets “better” at it– meaning you start experiencing pain more intensely, with less provocation.

So.  How did it happen to me?

As I’ve touched up in previous posts, my high school years were pretty rough.  Basically, a bunch of bad things happened in my life, too close together for me to know how to deal with.  When I look back on that time, it’s like my thoughts and emotions were tangled up in one big knot– a knot it would take me years to untie.

At the time, one of the ways I coped was with exercise.  I struggled with depression, and the endorphins I got from exercise were one of the only things that made me feel normal.  That one- or two- hour window each day after my workout was the only time I felt like the clouds lifted, and I could think clearly.

The other way I coped was by restricting my calories and keeping my body at an unhealthily low weight.  I’d perceived myself as being a little bit chubby at the time the bad things started to happen, and being skinny was part of the new me.  Paradoxically, with each ounce of flesh I was able to strip off from my bones, I felt I was adding a kind of layer of “protection” around me, ensuring that things couldn’t go back to the way they had been.

So, I was starving myself, and running an average of 40 miles a week.

***

I ran for my school’s cross-country and track teams, and before I go on, let me say that I loved running for its own sake.  And I was good at it.

But I took it too far.  For a while, my body’s natural ability allowed me to excel even as I got skinnier and skinnier.   I was hitting faster and faster times– winning medals, even– as more of my skeleton became visible.

Obviously, this was a recipe for disaster, and eventually I developed compartment syndrome in my lower legs.  It’s a condition that’s somewhat similar to carpal tunnel– basically, I had a lot of fluid being trapped inside of my lower legs.  I’ll write more about compartment syndrome later, but for now, let’s just say that it got worse and worse until I’d gone from almost being able to run a five-minute mile to barely being able to walk.

I suffered from compartment syndrome for the next two years before finally deciding to have surgery, and wow– I really wish I could take that decision back.  I wish I’d just had surgery sooner, because it really solved the problem almost immediately.

However, at the time, my orthopedist had suggested I try more conservative forms of treatment.  None of them really worked, but on some level, I was lost in my own inertia.

I had been trying, and trying, and trying for so long– forcing myself up at 5 am to work out, when I’d barely been able to sleep the night before because I was so hungry.  I was just done.

***

Those two years, from age 17-19, are somewhat of a blur.  I was still struggling with depression, although things improved dramatically after I graduated from high school.  I actually tried to work out in a pool but wasn’t really feeling it– ironic, because all these years later, the pool has become my second home.  But at the time, I was just too depressed to think or function clearly.

So I waited those two years, sometimes trying conservative treatment methods, sometimes going to physical therapy, sometimes working out in a pool.

The compartment syndrome was not so much excruciating as it was frustrating.  I knew where the limits were pretty clearly– how much I could push myself before the feeling of pressure built up in my lower legs, and my feet started tingling.

But it was still a constant buzz in the background, like an annoying mosquito buzzing around my ear for those two years.  I couldn’t forget about it– couldn’t even stand in line at the movies.  Whoever I went with had to stand in line while I waited on a bench.

***

I tried to go to college like all of my friends.  I actually went to a large Division I school, thinking somehow I’d get back into running.  But really, things were getting worse, and it was becoming harder and harder to walk.  There wasn’t adequate public transportation around campus, and I’d have to decide whether I wanted to walk to the library that day to get my books for class, or if I wanted to actually go to class.  My body couldn’t do both.

That’s when I realized this couldn’t go on, and decided to come home and have surgery.

***

The surgery itself was not very invasive at all.  The place where my orthopedist had to make a few incisions was very superficial (aka close to the surface) so he didn’t have to dig around too much.  I came home from the hospital that same day, and although I spent the following day completely knocked out with narcotic painkillers, by the second day I wasn’t even using my crutches (although I still had casts).

Everything seemed normal right after the surgery, although from what people have told me, surgery like that can be a big trauma to the body.

I didn’t notice anything right away– in fact, I was healing pretty well.  But, as I later learned, it’s possible that everything my nervous system had already been through– the constant bombardment from the compartment syndrome, as well as the surgery- would have a delayed effect.

***

As luck would have it, I had developed acid reflux right around then.  My doctor suggested I try sleeping propped up by pillows at night, so gravity could keep the acid down.

Big mistake.  I woke up after one night in absolute agony.  I had completely thrown my back out– the whole thing felt like one giant muscle spasm.

I had never had such a silly, simple little thing cause so much pain before.  The only injuries I’d had before had been serious running injuries, that came from pounding my legs into pavement 40 miles a week.  But this silly, little simple thing actually had me in excruciating pain.

And this– THIS.  After everything I’d been through, this is how my chronic pain problem started.

Looking back, I can see that it probably wasn’t just the issue of throwing my back out.  Instead, it was probably a combination of factors– everything my body had been through, coming together to create an overwhelming effect all at one time.  My nervous system had just had too much.

Of course, I didn’t know what it was at a time.  I had never heard of such a thing as central sensitization, and in fact, I wouldn’t– not for another six years.  I had a long road ahead of me.

To be continued in Part 2.

An Update on Life with One Ovary

One of the topics readers most frequently contact me about is the time I had to have emergency surgery to remove my right ovary.

In case you aren’t familiar with the story, I had had abdominal pain throughout most of my twenties.  Doctors had told me it was nothing to worry about– just digestive issues.

Well, in February 2013– just a few days before my 28th birthday– the pain in my right side, and nausea, became so severe that I went to the emergency room.

There, an ultrasound revealed that I was suffering from ovarian torsion— something had caused my right ovary to rotate, with the Fallopian tube wrapped around it in such a way that its blood supply was being cut off.

The doctors rushed me in to surgery in an attempt to reverse this process and restore blood flow, but it was too late.  The ovary had to be removed.

For months, after this– I’d say a year, really– I suffered from both physical and emotional fall out.  And actually, a lot of what I experienced me is what my readers say they also go through.

I decided it’s high time I give everyone an update on this situation, and I’m here to tell you that, three years later, everything is alright.

***

Physical Symptoms:

I was in pretty significant pain for about two weeks following my surgery.  I really relied on narcotic painkillers.  They masked the pain so well that I’d think I was better and didn’t need them anymore.  Then my last dose would wear off and I’d feel like my world was coming to an end.  Other people (mainly my parents) would have to remind me that I was due for another Percoset, and then I’d come back into my rational mind again.  (By the way, I am a FIRM believer in the usefulness of opioid medications.  This entire ordeal would have been much more emotionally scarring if I’d had to bear the brunt of this mind-warping pain without them) .

After about two weeks I was okay… until my next period.

This is pretty graphic, but I figure if you’re here, you’re interested.  I went back to my OB doc in agony again, like I’d just had the surgery yesterday.  He explained that basically, now that I was menstruating, blood was coming out of  the side my uterus and leaking into my abdomen, because now I had a gap where the Fallopian tube used to be.  Basically, it was a totally benign phenomenon– my body would just reabsorb it– it was just causing pain because there was fluid where fluid wasn’t supposed to be.

At the time, my doctor told me it would be like this every time I got my period, and suggested I take the birth control pill to lighten my periods and ease the pain.  I did this for a few months, but eventually as time wore on, things stopped being painful.  Now I believe that my body just hadn’t fully healed from the surgery.  It’s also possible, as one nurse practitioner suggested, that my nervous system had become sensitized to pain in that area (gee, that sounds familiar!).

What I do know, for sure, is that three years later, I am having normal periods without agonizing pain.  I sometimes do notice that during my period, I’m a little sore on the right side, but it’s something I am pretty much able to ignore.

Mood/Emotions/How Do I Feel?

I feel totally and completely normal.  What all of the doctors told me is true– when you lose one ovary, the other one completely takes over.  You don’t really need two.  (In fact, there’s a reason why we have two).

My left ovary is a magical little powerhouse and it has taken over completely, doing everything I need it to do.  I feel the same.

Blame/Doubt

It took me a really, really long time to work through some of the emotions that came from this.

I am still mad at the doctors who so easily brushed my concerns aside.  To be fair, they were gastroenterologists, not ob-gyns.  But still.  One of them literally even wrote a book on digestive disorders in women.  (I don’t hate her enough to name her here– in fact, she is still my doctor because I think she’s a good gastroenterologist).

But still, on this, she did brush me aside and tell me it was irritable bowel syndrome.  Seeing that I am a woman of child-bearing age, I wish she had thought to tell me to consult an OB-GYN.

I also still think that the gluten-free craze is just a fad, and that it has power to do just as much harm as it does good.  (This doctor’s advice to me, the last time I saw her before this happened, was to try switching to a gluten-free diet to see if I felt better).

But I’m no longer mad at myself.  I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.

I try not to judge myself for the way I handle things.  There have been times I’ve under-reacted, and there have been times I’ve overreacted.  Nobody is perfect.  We do what we can.  Pragmatism is my goal.

Fear of it happening again

And this. This is really the number one thing women write to me about– the fear that the same thing will happen to your good ovary.

I can’t promise you that nothing will, but I can tell you that so far, nothing has happened to mine.  It is just fine.

They told me what happened to me was about as rare as getting hit by a bus, or being struck by lightning.  The odds are like one in a million.  The odds of it happening again? Almost minuscule.

Still, there have been a number of times that I’ve freaked out and rushed into the doctor’s office for an emergency same-day ultrasound.  (When you’ve already been that one in a million, it doesn’t really make you feel like taking chances).  But my ovary has never been twisted.

I’ll tell you the truth, in the past three years, I think I’ve had six of these.  I know that’s a lot.  But I know that it won’t seem like a lot to any of the women who’ve emailed me.

The majority of the times, the doctors were able to decipher what had happened to cause me pain.  That I had ovulated, or was about to ovulate (normal ovulation causes the formation of a little cyst, which then releases the egg).

Some of these cysts, they said, wouldn’t be enough to cause pain in every woman, but for whatever reason, in me– probably now that I’m hyper-focused to that area– I notice it.

And there were a few times I was really scared, when it hurt a lot.  But I learned that, in some women, normal ovulation can be really painful– even more painful than what I was reporting.  So I would just have to trust in the ultrasound, when it showed my ovary just doing its same normal healthy thing.

So, that is where I’m at right now.

I still hope to have kids someday, and as far as I know, there is no real reason why I won’t be able to.

Now that I write this, I can’t believe how sane and calm I sound.

Believe me, it wasn’t always this way.  I was the same as those of you who end up sending me ten panicked emails (it’s okay, I say this affectionately).  Really, I was.   But I had no one to email.  And now, for me, things are okay.  And there is every reason to think that, eventually, they will be for you too.

My two previous posts on my surgery:

So… I lost an ovary

Beware the Red Herring (follow-up post)