Body

What helps me to live with chronic pain

Chronic pain is something I have been suffering from for many years now. I used to blame only my sitting job for my constant back pain. After multiple tests and doctors’ visits I was told that there are no physiological changes in my spine, and all I can do is to exercise, stretch, and massage my body. 

I think I have tried everything... I do not remember the last day when I didn't have some kind of pain. It can be very demotivating. But at the same time I know, it's my body trying to tell me something. Over the years I have learnt to listen to it and to honor it. 

Chronic pain is not uncommon. At least 100 million adults in the United States suffer from it, according to the Institute of Medicine[1]. What is uncommon though is to associate chronic pain with mental health problems and to ignore the importance of diet in reducing body inflammation. 

That's why I find my passion in sharing my experience with pain and mental health with you. Hopefully, some of my findings can be helpful.

Causes

I have compiled possible reasons for my chronic back pain and fatigue into four groups. Of course, there can be more of them, or you might be dealing with something different. As I mentioned, I got my back checked by medical doctors before I started to look for another reasons and solutions. I think overall it's wise to pick categories that you personally would find important to focus on.

  • psychological reasons (trauma, depression, anxiety, stress etc.);
  • lack of nutrients;
  • lack of movement; 
  • chronic inflammation in the body. 

Let's talk about each one of them. 

Psychological

According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, pain can be a common symptom - and sometimes a good indicator - of an anxiety disorder, particularly generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)[1] - something I have been diagnosed with about 10 years ago. 

It is known that depression can also be a reason for chronic pain[2]. However their association remains unclear. 

Fibromyalgia is one of the conditions that most likely relate to mental health. It's a disorder that is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. This condition is very hard to diagnose as most traditional tests don’t show any changes in the physical body, that’s why oftentimes we receive something like: “You are completely fine”, “The pain is in your head”, etc.

What is interesting, is that people with fibromyalgia have increased sensitivity to pain[3]. According to scientists, it might relate to genetics, however overall this condition is still not understood enough, therefore (sad news) the best treatment has yet to be found.

There are more chronic pain conditions, connected to mental illness[4], but there are still more questions than answers in this field, it seems like. However, knowing that there is a connection helped me to start paying more attention to my psychological well-being and to stop taking it for granted.

No matter what the name for your condition is, if you feel like it is connected to your mental health, you will more likely be able to find proper tools to help you deal with it.

It is also important to mention, that when deep psychological trauma hasn’t been processed appropriately, it’s a setup for chronic pain. I will talk about it more on my blog. 

Deficiencies

I won't stop here for a long time, as I am still looking for answers. I know that back pain can be a sign of some important minerals and vitamins deficiency. To name a few: magnesium, iron, vitamin D, B vitamins.

I was prescribed B vitamins and vitamin D by my doctors without any blood tests done, something that I find very important to do if you have this option. Experimenting with supplements can be a complete waste of money, especially in today's world, where everyone plays a role of an "expert", trying to sell as many things as possible. Unnecessary supplements can also have a very negative effect on your body.

I want you to be careful with it, and ask your doctor if you suspect any lack of nutriens. Also the important part can be not only your consumption of those nutrients but the ability of your body to absorb them (this also can be tested). 

Lack of movement

Our ancestors were much stronger than us[5]. Human's level of physical activity first dropped after invention of agriculture, but now our lifestyle is even more different than that. Sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950 according to American Heart Association[6]. It's bad not only for physical, but also for out mental health[7]

Recent studies have shown that multimodal exercise programs that include a range of activity (aerobic, resistance, and flexibility exercises) are effective at significantly reducing pain in osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia[8].

But it is also important to take it easy and find exercises that work for you, as some of them can make your condition worse. 

Inflammation

In many instances, neuropathic pain is associated with nerve inflammation, neuritis, in the absence of nerve injury[9].

"A lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation, and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation," says Dr. Fred Tabung, a visiting researcher with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health[10]

I am not going to lie, I only recently discovered, that there is a connection between what we put in our mouth and chronic pain, and it does make sense to me. Everything in our body is connected, and if we already have inflammation in our body, it's obvious, that external factors, such as food, for instance, can make it worse.

At least I think it is something worth experimenting with.

 

Treatment

Based on what has been said, I chose a few things that help me to live and deal with my chronic pain. Do I hope it will ever go away? I think recovery is overall possible, but it depends on whether I am consistent with my self-care routine, how well I manage stress, and how responsive my body is to the changes that I make.

In no specific order.

Exercise

I don't know about you, but I feel much worse when I happen to sit all day in front of the computer. So I try to take breaks, stand up and walk every 45 minutes or so (my Fitbit helps with it) and exercise on a regular basis. 

Typically, I feel the worst in the morning. Even though I usually workout in the evening, I don’t like to lay down in bed for a long time after I open my eyes. It is definitely helpful to do some stretching after I woke up.

Sometimes I use a foam roller to release tension.

Exercise does help, but be careful with the intensity of your workouts. Usually I do a full body workout and also go to the climbing gym (it is the best, cos I also enjoy it a lot) in the evening. Climbing is definitely not the easiest sport, but enjoyment that I have from it helps to forget about my pain. 

Usually I exercise 5 times a week (1 day is swimming). 

Pain medicines 

Pain medicines can be tricky as all of them have side effects that you would want to avoid, but I understand, it can be hard to deal with pain without any relief. 

I heard that some patients with fibromyalgia can be prescribed strong medications (such as Lyrika) by their doctors, but I use over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as acetaminophen, aspirin and naproxen. 

I also find topical treatments such as arnica gel and CBD balms helpful (I apply it on my shoulders).

Healthy diet

Generally speaking I follow plant-based anti-inflammatory diet. I do try to consume less sugar and avoid deep fried and processed foods. 

I do feel better when I eat more vegetables and stick to "healthy" diet, but I should give it more time to see if it has any effect on my pain.

Self-love and self-care

In this post I don't want to talk about managing stress and getting enough sleep seperately from self-care, because to me it's all connected.

I think the more you love yourself, the more you will want to take care of yourself, including your mental and physical health. Self-love also helps me to accept my pain as it is and be patient. It is not something that goes away fast, because it can be connected to some deep psychological issue that you are yet to solve. And just in general it takes time for the body to heal, physically and mentally.

So cultivating self-love, asking for help (therapy), if needed, trying to rest when my body is asking for it, is very important to me.

It would be silly of me to tell you to worry less, because it is one of the worst advice that I have been given. But I believe, the more you take care of yourself and the stronger you become physically, the easier it might become for you to deal with stress and anxiety, the stronger you will become mentally. 


References

[1] American psychological association, Managing Chronic Pain, article, December 2013, <https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/pain-management>

[2] Jiyao Sheng, Shui Liu, Yicun Wang, Ranji Cui, Xuewen Zhang, The Link between Depression and Chronic Pain: Neural Mechanisms in the Brain, article, 19 January 2017, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5494581/>

[3] Marta Ceko, M. Catherine Bushnell, Richard H. Gracely, Neurobiology Underlying Fibromyalgia Symptoms, article, 27 October 2011, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3205654/>

[4] Adela Hilda Onuțu, Dan Sebastian Dîrzu and Cristina Petrișor, Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors and Their Role in Chronic Pain Management, article, 5 August 2018, <https://www.intechopen.com/books/serotonin/serotonin-reuptake-inhibitors-and-their-role-in-chronic-pain-management>

[5] Nina Lincoff, Why You Need to Exercise Much More Than Your Ancestors Did, article, 24 December 2014, <https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-you-need-to-exercise-more-than-your-ancestors-122414#1>

[6] Nicole Fisher, Americans Sit More Than Anytime In History And It's Literally Killing Us, article, 6 March 2019, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/03/06/americans-sit-more-than-anytime-in-history-and-its-literally-killing-us/#1b320c02779d>

[7] Arlene Semeco, MS, RD, The Top 10 Benefits of Regular Exercise, article, 10 February 2017, <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-benefits-of-exercise#section1>

[8] Kirsten R. Ambrose, MS, CCRC, Yvonne M. Golightly, PT, MS, PhD, Physical exercise as non-pharmacological treatment of chronic pain: Why and when, article, 23 May 2015, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4534717/>

[9] Tal M, A Role for Inflammation in Chronic Pain, abstract, 1999, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10998702>

[10] Harvard Health Publishing, Can diet heal chronic pain? article, July 2018, <https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/can-diet-heal-chronic-pain>