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Living With Persistent Pain

Chronic pain (persistent pain) is an indiscriminatory beast and an unfair burden to live with.  It’s also not widely understood.

I mean, touching something hot … pain has a purpose.  Stepping on Lego in the dark … pain has a purpose.  Breaking a bone, a gash to the skin … pain has a purpose.  It says “Danger: Will Robinson … stop for fear of further injury.”!

When it comes to finding relief from chronic pain symptoms it can be hard to know who to see for what type of pain. We might start with the GP, progress to physio, chiropractic or lean on pharmaceutical pain relief.  After months or years or no relief, perhaps in desperation we try alternative therapies.

I don’t know anyone who is a better person for living with persistent pain.

But what about massage?  Most people might look for ‘massage near me’ or ‘massage places near me’ as a “cure”.  Do you know who your seeing, what to ask for or whether you’ll feel any better.  For some people, massage is just the therapy they need – the right solution for their problem.  For others, massage can help keep pain at bay. 

Remedial massage provides treatment options for chronic muscle pain, muscle strain, trigger points, tissue cramp issues, jaw pain, pelvic discomfort and headaches. It helps to ease feelings of anxiousness and overwhelm, and it is usually a nurturing experience. Never underestimate the effectiveness of simple, caring, human touch.

Sometimes all your body needs to know is that it’s safe; and it doesn’t have to hurt anymore.

So What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is often defined as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks … just 12 weeks. This is different to acute pain, which is a normal sensation that alerts us to possible injury.  Chronic pain is very different. Chronic pain persists—often for months or even longer.

I too have struggled with chronic pain and fortunately for me it has not been a lifetime debilitation.  This is my story:

The accident

In 2011 I was on a health kit and I was eating well and busy being active.  It was a warm November evening and I was cycling home from work.  I was wearing lycra and I was making good time.  I rarely saw any other walkers or cyclists on this section of the trail.  As I dropped into a culvert to cross under a road my back tyre slipped on some loose gravel.  I saw another cyclist and I gripped the brakes, turned the handlebars and over I went.  Quickly back onto my feet examining the scrapes, apologising then on my way home.

That night I was a little sore.  Within a week I was at the beginning of a journey through chronic pain.  I have never suffered migraines, and to this day I never have and I chuckle to myself when I hear people say, “I have a migraine I need a Panadol!” (You so do not have a migraine).

When I came off that bike I suffered an injury.  The helmet rebounded on impact damaging the delicate soft tissues of my neck.  While my helmet protected the bony structure of my skull from a potential skull fracture and brain injury, I gained myself a whiplash injury.

The result of this was persistent (chronic) pain, a dull ache that never left me.  If I sat for too long, or did anything that resulted me looking down for too long, or had to turn my head too far or for too long then severe fatigue and pain would washed over me lasting hours or days.  The pain during this time is difficult to describe as it was never “bad” as such – but it was draining – I liken it to a tooth ache.  It’s not “that bad” but it’s always there.  Constant pain affected my sleep, my mood, my sport, my work and definitely my marriage.

I had tried physio, chiropractic, massage and acupuncture and I took anti-inflammatories and analgesics most days.  I was at the point where I was desperate for solutions and would try anything for freedom from that pain and fatigue.

Most therapies I tried involved the therapist pushing really hard and repeatedly stripping the damaged areas.  At the end of each session I would usually feel terrible.  Some of the treatments were so ferocious that holding back tears was impossible.  “No pain no gain”, “it just needs to be pushed around”, “we’ve got to mobilise these tissues”. 

After each treatment, I’d get temporary relief and then my muscles would guard up.  The pain that came that night or the next day was usually pretty severe.

I gave up the sport I loved and I stopped doing a whole bunch of things, including going out with friends because I was always sore, tired and miserable.

I want to make something clear here, the pain I’m talking about was triggered by an injury.  Chronic pain that come without warning or reason is unfair and we just don’t understand why it happens.

Recovery

It was out of desperation that I explored some gentler therapies and therapists.  I would describe these as “working with my body” rather than “working on my body.”  And this included acupuncture, myofascial release and craniosacral therapy.  These were at the hands of skilled practitioners who talked matter of fact, and not a bunch of woo.

One therapist described my pain as an “old wound”.  “Your pain, it is old, but it will pass.”  His words were gentle and sincere.  Most health practitioners operate under that medical model of injury / illness -> solution. Chronic pain isn’t like that.

About a month into treatment I remember waking for the first time consciously aware that ‘today I was free of pain’ and to say I sobbed is an understatement.  For the next couple of months there were days of debilitating pain.  And while these episodes were hard they did become fewer.  Within 3 months I would say that most days were good days.

To this day, that injury still plagues me, it returns during times of significant stress, or a sharp movement, driving of a bumpy road for too long, or sitting in a seminar with my head turned.  I’m not “healed” entirely from it and the more I read I understand that in my case a whiplash injury is for life.  I do have the tools and the people I need to help me through the other side of a flare up.

More about chronic pain

I’m using simple anguage here to try to describe something that is extraordinarily complex.

See pain has a purpose. It’s to let us know that something is harming us and to keep us safe from further harm. Sometimes our tissues get stuck in this “alert” pattern. I said once “is this all in my head” (it’s something that I’m asked pretty often now). Yeah it is, but not for the reasons you may think. Is the pain imaginary? Not to your system, that’s why you’re feeling pain.

The alarm bell, it never stops ringing. Pain. Threat. Danger.
Stop moving, feel stressed, feel anxious, feel more pain, feel tired – it is a vicious circle. The pain magnifies to become consuming. It’s because of this neurolgical element to pain that makes it so difficult to treat.

Soft tissue therapies such as massage and when delivered thoughtfully, deliberately, skillfully and more importantly … slowly, can be effective when other avenues are not. Repeated soft massage of the injured areas is thought to help retrain teh brain to tell it “it’s okay, the threat is gone, there’s no need to hurt any more.” More importantly there is an emotional value to human touch through massage that is soothing, that serves to nurture, and help you to feel safe, connected and supported, rahter than being pushed around like a bag of meat with bones.

The End

To wind things up, chronic pain is a cruel beast that may only last months for some.  For some like me that pain does come to pass, and for others that pain must be managed carefully over a lifetime.   I was fortunate to find a therapy(ies) that worked for me.

If you are suffering from chronic pain I say to you “You are not alone.”  I also say “keep on trying.”  Don’t be satisfied when you are told to accept the way things are, keep on searching.  Sometimes the answers are obscure.

You may one day find your own answer or through the hands of a wonderful practitioner.  Sometimes two hands and an open heart is all that is needed to get better, to love ourselves and others and rediscover a freedom to live.

For support with managing chronic pain, visit Chronic Pain Australia

If your pain has led to depression, see your GP and seek support through BeyondBlue

David Clayton is the Principal Remedial Therapist at Myomasters Massage located in Hope Valley in the north east of Adelaide.  He has a passion for supporting humans to live the lives they were to born to live using massage and soft tissue therapies.  He has a particular interest in assisting people to recover from stress, anxiety and trauma using compassionate and nurturing touch.

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