by Grettel Loney
I shared my journey with chronic pain in a three-part series here on the918. Click here for Part 1, here for Part 2, or here for Part 3. People have since reached out to talk with me about their specific back issues. Lower back pain is so common, there is, unfortunately, a high chance you will have it at some point in your life. Most back pain resolves itself in one to four weeks, but for others it ends up being chronically debilitating and may require surgery. No matter where on the spectrum your pain falls, pain is pain, it’s tiring and it’s no fun. So I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts on lessons I learned over my many years of dealing with chronic back pain and multiple back surgeries.
Disclaimer: I am not a back expert—which leads me to my first point:
- If your pain is disrupting your sleep or the quality of your life in general, then it’s time to see a doctor. I dislike going to doctors as much as anyone else: the waiting, the having to tell your story, the paperwork, the money you spend, wondering if you’ll be believed, the fear you won’t get the help you need. Some injuries simply require going to a doctor, and yes, maybe even some tests.
- Be completely honest with your doctor. Don’t worry about being overly dramatic. Worry about being real. Explain to him or her how your injury is affecting your everyday life: the things you can’t do, the way it’s disrupting your sleep, what is helping, and what isn’t. They are there to help. That’s their job! I completely understand the fear of a doctor thinking you just want more meds for the fun of it. I worried about that. I never wanted to seem like a drama queen. This isn’t the time to hold back, though. Tell him or her all your concerns, even that one. They are not mind readers! You made the appointment, waited the time, filled out all the paperwork, and everything else being there entailed. Don’t waste the visit by being vague. If you feel like your doctor isn’t taking you seriously, I recommend finding one who will.
- Ignoring your symptoms can lead to greater problems. If one area of your body is weak, other parts have to step up to help in ways they weren’t designed to, so you end up making those other parts vulnerable to injury. Listen to your body.
- Masking pain is no bueno. We all want relief, but masking the symptoms without taking care of the root of the problem is never a good long-term goal. I’ll use myself as an example. For a while I’d get shots to mask the pain so I could continue to run. Not smart. My discs were collapsing because of two tears that weren’t being addressed at all. Inevitably the shots quit working, the discs fully collapsed, and then I had much more serious problems than not getting my running fix.
- Ice is your friend. I always had two ice packs in the freezer. After driving, or any time my pain would spike, I’d put one on, and I can honestly say, it always helped, even if the relief was temporary. I’d even drive with one on sometimes. The cold slows circulation to the area and reduces swelling which in turn reduces pain.
- Blood flow increases healing, so heat is also effective in helping to reduce pain. A good heating pad can feel incredible and so much better than ice, especially in the morning. At night, I would ice before going to sleep, but then I would fall asleep on a heating pad that would automatically shut itself off after a period of time.
- Write down all the meds you take every single time you take them in a notebook. You can think you’re going to remember every time, but it’s just not possible! This is so important especially during times you’re taking strong meds, such as post-op. Small notebooks are so inexpensive. Just have one and a pen on your nightstand at all times or wherever you take your meds. Before you take the pill, write it down—even if it’s at 3 a.m. If it’s during post-op, have someone check it or write it down for you.
- We weren’t created to be couch potatoes. The best thing you can do for yourself is move as much as possible. There was a time in my life I couldn’t do any exercise, so I understand sometimes you just can’t. I also remember walking downstairs in my home around the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, back into the kitchen, and I would do this slowly for ten minutes when I was recovering from my back surgeries to get the blood flowing. Anything you can do is better than nothing. Circulation is so important to your whole body, and it will help your tight muscles exponentially.
- Be nice to your caretakers. Living with pain can make you tired, grumpy, moody, and at times difficult to live with. You never asked for this, and all you probably want is to just feel normal. Just don’t forget your caregivers are on your side. They probably wish they could do more to help. We all mess up. Make sure you apologize when you do, and let them know you appreciate them.
- On that subject, don’t close yourself off from those trying to help, especially your main caregiver. I didn’t want to seem like a whiner to my husband, so most of the time I wouldn’t tell him how I felt. Sometimes I would assume it was obvious, but it wasn’t always. No one can see our pain. God forbid I ever have another major injury again, but if I did, I would be more honest about how I was feeling. No one wants to be around a complainer, but all the times I closed myself off to my husband just made me feel that much more alone. Let your caregivers especially know how you’re feeling emotionally. There was a dark time for me when I kept my emotions all to myself for weeks. When I finally let my husband in, it concerned him enough to bring up to my neurosurgeon at my next visit. I felt like I was being cornered, and I resisted fiercely, but they talked me into taking anti-depressants for a season, and for that I’m so thankful. Keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself only exacerbates depression and anxiety.
- People will say dumb things. It’s hard, but try to give insensitive people the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they’re not trying to be insensitive or hurtful. I’ve wanted to smack people who said in what seemed to me a self-righteous tone, “I would never take meds. I just don’t like how they make me feel.” I wanted to snap back angrily, “Oh yes you would, if that’s what it took for you to be able to get out of bed.” I had to bite my tongue many times and instead say something like, “Well, I wish I didn’t have to. I certainly hate the side effects, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do,” and then just drop it. We’ve all said things we’ve regretted about subjects we were clueless about, right?
- If you go to a surgeon and he recommends a surgery, get a second opinion. Yes, it takes more time to get another appointment and all the annoying things I already mentioned about going to the doctor, but… I wish so badly I could go back and get a second opinion on my very first back surgery. Most are good doctors, but not all of them are. It’s best just to get that second or even third opinion.
- Learn to say “no.” Don’t worry about what people will think! You’re the one who needs to heal, and you’re the one living with the pain. Stubbornness is not a virtue. It’s hard to put your needs above others’ needs sometimes. It’s hard to be a good patient, I know! It’s hard to not bend, lift, or twist. It’s hard to not carry that thing you shouldn’t, or ask for help. Take care of yourself.
Dealing with pain disrupts everything in your life. In “My Journey with Chronic Pain” I talked in much greater detail about many of those challenges.
I want to leave you with this poem I wrote in July of 2007. I was a single parent working full time and living with a lot of pain. I’d recently gotten my nerves burned in a procedure called a rhizotomy. It hadn’t worked. My young age actually worked against me: my nerves grew back, but all frazzled, so I was worse off than before that procedure. I hope it encourages you!
“Sometimes I Wonder”
Sometimes I wonder if this is the way it’s supposed to be.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s supposed to be this hard.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m me and not a dirt-poor woman fetching water from a well, washing clothes in a dirty river—in a third-world country.
Sometimes I wonder why children are stricken with incurable diseases.
Why some parents have to live with an eternal ache in their heart.
I don’t know the answers to many of my questions.
I frankly prefer to not think about them too often.
But when I do—I wish I had more answers.
Some days are good. But most days are hard. Pain, fatigue, worries, work.
Is that the way it is for most? I bet so.
Of the billions of people in this world—I wonder how many would trade their sorrows and pain for mine? I bet a lot would.
Would I trade my life for anyone else’s? No. I’ll take my pain, my fatigue, my worries, my work. I’ll take it with my blessings—my children, my love, my friends, my work.
I think I’m just supposed to be strong—acknowledging every step of the way my strength comes from my Maker. The One who knows my every thought and concern, worry, and fear. My every ounce of pain and stress.
I think one day at a time I’m supposed to be a light in the midst of all the darkness—because you usually don’t have to look far to find a downcast face—a broken heart.
They’re everywhere. Sometime they’re as close as a mirror— but I can try to be strong even just for me.
Today is one of those hard days.
Today, however, I choose to be strong. Today I will think about my Creator. My Lord.
His grandness. His creation. I will smile. I will not whine. I will not feel sorry for myself. I will be grateful. I will be a blessing to my children. I will love those around me.
Today is going to be a good day.
Sometimes I wonder why things can’t be easier. But, until I figure that out, I’m so glad I don’t have to.
Grettel Loney moved to Tulsa in 1989 to attend Oral Roberts University. She is married and has two children: a son at the University of Tulsa, and a daughter at Carver Middle School. Grettel enjoys Bible study, playing the guitar, traveling, learning languages, and is an avid sports fan. Her other work for the918 includes Her Journey With Chronic Pain Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Her Journey Through Grace to Gracie, and Tips to Help You with Your Spiritual New Year’s Resolutions.