7 steps to dealing with chronic pain

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Do you remember the book Flowers for Algernon? It is the story of a man with an IQ below 70 who undergoes an operation which triples his IQ. Over time, though, his IQ starts to drop and returns to its original level. I read the book way back in junior high, but I still vividly recall feeling compassion for this man who suffered so much. I cannot help but think about this story with regards to my injury. I had an operation which corrected a problem, but, a little part of me wonders if it is all too good to be true and my body will revert back to its pre-surgical state.

Long term pain undoubtedly change a person; I know, at the very least, it changed me. While the injury itself was not psychological, there assuredly was a psychological component; injuries indeed wreak havoc on the mind as well as the body. Chronic pain, a failing body, and an inability to perform tasks that were once achievable all had a profound impact. Ten weeks have passed since surgery, and I am feeling like a new and improved model of myself, like a JZ 2.0. But. There is still dread and worry. Might the neuroma come back?

The fear is illogical, yet it still lingers. I am past the point of waking up in the morning and hoping it will be a good day. I have moved beyond hoping that I will be able to perform my run and swim workouts without pain getting in the way. I can lift heavy object, I can twist and turn, heck, I can even do pull ups, which is no small feat because I couldn’t even do them before the injury.

Despite reaching milestone after milestone, the little voice in my head still wonders if I will have the same fate as the man in Flowers for Algernon. I am not sure how much time has to pass before the thoughts dwindle into thin air.

Anyone who has faced chronic pain knows what I am talking about. The pain can be in your foot, but if you have a hangnail all of the sudden you are petrified the foot injury is back. The irrational thought process is this: at any moment, without warning, the injury will rear its ugly head. The problem is that athletes are controlling. We like to feel that we have control over our bodies, our workouts, and our destiny.  Chronic pain ends up controlling us, a terrible turn of events that is hard to cope with. In fact, if the injury is serious enough or lasts long enough, an athlete can go through the five stages of grief: (1) denial, (2) anger, (3) grief, (4) depression, and (5) reintegration. I went through all five of those stages, sometimes all in one day.

I learned a lot during my tenure on the disabled list, that there is so much that can be done to make an chronic pain less noxious and allow you to take back some control.

1.     It is imperative to get a proper diagnosis. This step cannot be ignored and can take a very long time. Until there is a diagnosis, it is difficult to treat the injury or know the long term prognosis. Don’t give up on this step, even if it means seeing or talking to multiple doctors. I interacted with over a dozen physicians before I found The One.
2.    Once you know what you are dealing with, make an action plan. Determine how long recovery should take. Read up on the problem until you are an expert.  You need to understand how it happened, how to make it better and how to prevent it in the future.
3.    Find good rehab therapists. Massages, acupuncture, PT all play an important role in recovery. I used all of those modalities with a lot of success.
4.    Be diligent with rehab exercises. I work on rehab every single day. I hate it. It works.
5.    Find other ways to get your exercise fix. One of the biggest problems with an injury is the inability to get the endorphins we love so much. Be creative and find other activities that you enjoy or somewhat enjoy and embrace it/them. Doing something is better than doing nothing. I despise walking, but I made it a huge part of my daily activities when I could not do anything else.
6.    Don’t ever give up. Long term injuries, by the very nature of their name, last for extended periods of time. It is easy to become disheartened and lose faith that there will be a conclusion.
7.    A positive attitude goes a long way in recovery. Believing in yourself, even when others do not believe in you, is probably the most pivotal step in the process. If you know you will get better, eventually you will.

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