Resetting the pain scale

The common question after my countless surgeries (I’ve had 7) or ablations (I’ve had 17 ablations of thoracic/lumbar nerves T5-L1) is “Are you pain-free yet?” Those who ask always have the best intentions, and I almost feel like I am letting them down when I say “no”. The answer is always no. Since my chronic pain, and many of yours, is forever, I suggest resetting the pain scale.

The pain-free ship sailed many years ago. It took me quite some time to accept that fact. In the beginning, after my accident, I was certain that after 6-8 weeks everything would return to normal. Isn’t that generally the standard healing time of broken bones? Wow, I was really mistaken. At that time, I had no inkling of what lay ahead; the years of pain, the sheer number of surgeries, the trials of different medications, the myriad of non-surgical interventions, the diagnosis of intercostal neuralgia. I cannot recall the moment when my mindset shifted from “I want to be pain-free” to “I want to be in less pain”, but when it did, I felt liberated. The shroud of the unachievable was lifted from my shoulders.

Chronic pain is funny like that. Not the ha-ha funny of Dave Chappelle. More like an ironic funny.

Chronic conditions, particularly those that are with us forever, change our world-view. Perhaps, we become more jaded. Or, more cynical. Most importantly, we just need to become more realistic.

Once that mindset shift occurred, I knew that pain would be with me forever. I could then stop focusing on a cure and instead focus on how to become more comfortable and adapt my lifestyle to that comfort level. I make two decisions on a daily basis. First, I ask myself “what level of pain can I live with today?” Once I determine a number on the standard 0-10 pain scale, I then decide “what activities can I do or do I need to avoid to make that happen?”

Because, as with all chronic pain conditions, I know that certain things aggravate my pain. Sometimes I will throw caution to the wind and engage in an activity that I know will make things worse and then suffer the ramifications later. I don’t do it often, but, now and again, I like to feel “normal”.

Understanding the parameters of your pain and what you can expect from your pain eases the burden of aiming for the holy grail of a pain-free existence. If your goal is to be pain-free when the reality is that you will always be at a 4 or a 6 or an 8 leads to a daily dose of frustration. A daily dose of frustration can certainly exacerbate your pain.

If your goal, instead, is to live with the 4 or 6 or 8, allowing for the occasional uptick that naturally occurs with chronic pain, you instantly shifted your expectations and the daily dose of frustration is now eased.

Coming to terms with your baseline level of pain is almost like resetting the pain scale. Now, your new “zero” is whatever number you are normally on the pain scale allowing room for breakthrough pain or an occasional flare up.

Thinking about yourself at a zero is so much easier than telling yourself that you are continually much higher up on the pain scale. It also more easily accommodates the natural fluctuations that occur with chronic pain. Pain manifests itself in infinite physical symptoms. It is up to us to take control of our bodies with our mind to ease the burden of what is often beyond our control.

Instead of ruminating about your lack of a pain-free existence, focus your attention on making sure your pain stays at your new zero with mindfulness and exercise. Then, when the flare ups occur, you are more ready to challenge that new new obstacle.

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