Chronic pain is a familiar nemesis to more than 100 million people in this country alone. It often becomes an insidious and silent undercurrent, known only to the patient and those very close to him or her. Someone around you this very minute is, without a doubt, a chronic pain patient. You are not aware of their suffering because they will go to great lengths to conceal their pain (particularly in social settings). Most of the time they do it in order to avoid becoming a burden to others.The stigma surrounding chronic pain, one that has been internalized by the patients, is quite powerful and it perpetuates in the patient this need for apparent, superficial strength. Am I just not trying to get better quite hard enough? Am I not thinking positively enough? Oftentimes, patients even take it upon themselves to play down their suffering. Most blend the best way they can into the routine of daily life, by surfacing on their good days to take care of business and by retreating on bad days to lick their wounds in isolation. It is a way of life for any long term chronic pain sufferer.
Been There. Done That.
I also suffer from chronic pain. When I talk about it I am talking of a familiar companion. I have the kind of unpredictable pain that makes you hesitate to make plans for the coming weekend and also makes you afraid of going to bed at night should it creep up while you sleep. At its very worst, my pain lands me in the ER unable to utter a single, coherent phrase. As a result, I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to avoid it, how to ameliorate a flare up, how to organize my life around it.
My personal kind of portable hell comes from a severe case of TMJ dysfunction that brings on the most unbelievable migraines and very disabling episodes of trigeminal nerve pain. I have been dealing with it in one way or another for close to twenty years now, and the severity of the episodes has increased as I have grown older. I fight it daily. I also look for solutions constantly, always keeping my eyes open for a new treatment or specialist.
As anyone who suffers from a similar type of pain would know, everyone around me has been forced to deal with the effects of it. No exceptions. My children, my husband, even my pets have suffered. It has crippled my life in ways too complicated to recount succinctly, and it has done it so deeply, that there has not been any relationship in my life that was not somehow mediated by the pain. Some days I was there, present and trying to do my best. There are many other times I can barely recall because the pain obscures them to the point of being unrecognizable. I wanted to go on but simply couldn’t. The pain switch had been turned on. Everyone was a loser.
Still, there are many people around me right now who do not know I carry this burden. There are others I knew before, who would never describe me as someone in bad health and certainly not someone in pain. The reason being that adding insult to injury, pain makes you a great pretender. It transforms you into an impostor who tries to pass as the most normal, carefree and active person in the room. Though you might have been just that kind of person in the past, you are now living in constant fear of a relapse. You know what’s waiting around the corner and you try not to concern anyone with it. God forbid you should inconvenience anyone or make them feel like they need to do something to aid you. God forbid they have to make accommodations on your behalf.
Choices Are Without Shame
As a nutritionist, I choose real food as my first line of defense. I know that a nutritionally sound diet is the solution to many of the very serious diseases that plague humankind. It can prevent, treat and ameliorate a vast array of ailments. However, I will be the first to admit that sometimes I have no other choice than resorting to pharmaceutical drugs to manage the pain. There is a lot of shaming in many circles regarding the use of pain killers and other medications. I can only say that I probably wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for them. There is a threshold that is only known to the patient himself or herself: that which allows you to remain rational through your pain. Once you have crossed that line all bets are off. I chose my pain killers as a way to stay on the right side of that red line. I don’t always take them at the first sign of pain, but I know when I have exhausted all my other ammunition. That’s when I reach for them, not without a tremendous sense of frustration and a measure of defeat, but knowing that they will give me the space to at least recoil and wait for the flare up to pass.
Use All The Tools Available
What can we do to help curtail the excessive use of pain killers? That goal is always present in my mind. After all, they are not without many and serious side effects and one must be judicious in their use. There are a number of therapies (acupuncture, massage or physical therapy) aimed at relieving the pain associated with many conditions. Their rate of success varies from one individual to the next. However, there is an immediate course of action that can be undertaken everyday and by everyone. It is none other than diet.
In general dietary terms, you can do your due diligence by avoiding pro inflammatory foods and consuming instead fresh vegetables and fruits that can lessen the intensity of your symptoms. Highly processed foods and refined carbohydrates perpetuate the cycle of pain and aggravate many chronic conditions. On the other hand, there is substantive research on the benefits of eating healthy foods to counteract the deterioration caused by disease. For example, tart cherries can combat the pain caused by arthritis. They appear to be as successful in fighting pain as naproxen, aspirin and other NSAIDs. Adding them to your daily diet can be an effective and delicious way to curb your pain.
Common Pain Fighting Foods
Ginger is common in supermarkets these days. It is also an excellent anti-inflammatory food. It addresses muscular pain and migraines with a similar success rate as regular aspirin. It is also proven to treat digestive problems like nausea and bloating. It is versatile as well as tasty and can be grated, used as a soothing tea or added sliced in cold drinks. It provides heat and spice to any dish.
Cranberries, both whole and in juice form, are a tasty way to combat the pain caused by stomach ulcers. Provided that you are eating them unsweetened, cranberries reduce the activity of the pathogen H. Pylori that damages the stomach lining.
Hot peppers are another food that fights arthritis pain. They contain a substance called capsaicin that dulls the pain when topically applied in the form of a cream or gel. It is also helpful to ingest capsaicin by adding hot peppers to your food. In this case, a little bit truly goes a long way.
Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory that is best taken as a supplement. By all means, enjoy your curries here and there, but do not rely on them alone. Curcumin (the substance responsible for the benefit this root provides) is difficult for the body to absorb. In order to enhance its absorption look for black pepper to be part of the formula: piperine combines seamlessly with curcumin and improves its efficacy. A 95% content of curcuminoids is recommended.
Whichever your approach to managing your chronic pain, your choices should never be a source of inner conflict or anxiety. Your pain is yours alone and only you can decide how to successfully deal with it. With a few changes in your diet and lifestyle, managing chronic pain can become an easier more achievable task.