Meeting Your Goals with Chronic Pain: A Shift in Perspective
Living with chronic pain puts a damper on your days (and that's putting it mildly). Learning to balance what you need to do for your life and what your pain needs in order to leave you relatively alone is an uphill battle. Sometimes, it can feel like you have to give up your goals and dreams and even regular, ordinary parts of your life. But do you?
The short answer is that it depends, and not exactly. If your dream is to become a trapeze artist and you live with chronic pain due to RA or another chronic illness or injury, you may want to consider revising your goal. Perhaps you'll still be able to work in the circus, but in a less physically demanding position. This is an example of reassessing your goals and shifting them slightly to accommodate your pain. There are several steps involved in shifting your plan so you can still live your life, even with chronic pain.
Get a Pain Management Plan
According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, about 116 million Americans are affected by serious, chronic pain, and many do not receive adequate treatment for their pain. Somewhere along the line, the War on Drugs started affecting pain management treatment. This has made it harder for people with chronic pain to access treatment and it's made it harder for doctors to practice in this field. However, there is an increasing understanding that pain management is a unique field requiring specialized training. If you have problems getting your pain treated, educate yourself about the risk of addiction (very low), treatment agreements, pain management issues and practice being a good advocate for yourself. Talk to your doctors honestly about the impact your pain has on your life and perhaps ask for a referral to a pain management specialist.
Be Honest with Yourself
You don't just need to be honest with your doctors, but also with yourself. How much is your pain affecting your ability to lead your life? Conversely, how much is your life affecting your pain levels? After my month off, I realized that the intense pain I had lived with for a few months was a flare caused by being overcommitted and working too hard. This is going to have an impact for how I work in the future and may involve extricating myself from certain commitments. I don't like having to do that, but it's necessary. If you have trouble sleeping because of pain, start the day crying in the shower because of pain or spend your weekends in bed healing, you may be doing too much. Taking a step back, looking honestly at what you do and learning some pain or stress management techniques can make a huge difference in your life. Remember that your life is there to be enjoyed. If you hurt too much to connect to joy, something needs to give.
Be the Turtle
As part of this exercise in being honest, it's important to think about what expectations you have of yourself. If you have a chronic illness and live with chronic pain, is it reasonable to expect that you do things at the same speed as a healthy person? We can all see the truth in that statement, yet so many of us feel as if we're somehow letting down our loved ones, employers and ourselves if we don't keep pushing through. But the only thing pushing through accomplishes is a guaranteed trip to your couch or bed, while you sit still and heal for days. Instead, remember the fable about the turtle and the hare — slow and steady gets you there. Working more slowly and staying within your limits allows you to have energy or spoons left over for tomorrow and the next day. In the long run, this actually allows you to get more done!
Chronic pain is invisible in our world. We are expected to "grin and bear it" and when we ask for help, we are looked at as drug seekers or weak. Over 100 million people in the US live with chronic pain and each year, it costs the country $565 to $635 billion in lost work, missed work and medical cost. Chronic pain is very real and has a very real impact, on the lines of the people who live with it, on our relationships, and on our society. It's time that we stop being silent. Be honest with yourself, be honest with your doctors and be honest with your family, friends and colleagues about what it's like to live with chronic pain. If we all tell our stories, chronic pain will be harder to ignore. Sharing our lives will ultimately lead to better treatment, better understanding and to people who have chronic pain leading better lives
Lene is the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain