I was once told that “pain is all in the mind”. I had half a mind to kick the physio that informed me of this quaint little fact to observe exactly how zen he was when his neurons were blasting around like nerf bullets. But I suppose there is a truth in it. For people suffering from non-symptomatic chronic pain, it is all in your mind. Confined to your body, to your brain…and that is so incredibly lonely.
Broadly speaking pain can be acute or chronic. Acute pain dissipates after a relatively short period of time, whereas chronic pain is drawn out for extended durations, usually more than six months, but can last a lifetime.
Chronic pain is more typically witnessed in people over the age of 50, however it can occur at any age and can be caused by injury, disease or a host of other complications.
I have experienced chronic back pain since the age of 14. The first difficulty for me was that, externally, there was no physical signal that I was in pain. There was no scar, no bruise no marked skin to reveal the extent of the injury. As such, when you are a fourteen year old sitting in a doctor’s office trying to explain that you can no longer sleep, concentrate or function like you used to, they have a tendency to dismiss you as being melodramatic and instruct you to carry less books in your school-bag. After 2 years of constant low-level pain, interspersed with periods of severe agony, I was referred to a clinic for an MRI.
I was informed that I had a worn disc in my thoracic region, probably caused by years of intensive gymnastics, a sport for which I was certainly not bendy enough. He told me I’d likely suffer from the pain for the foreseeable future and then asked me to have a nice day.
Upon discussing these results with a doctor, I was told to take painkillers when the pain got bad. When the only suggested form of treatment is to take a painkiller every time you’re in pain, the entire population of chronic pain sufferers would be addicted to ibuprofen, codeine and opioids. Unsurprisingly, many are, although in fairness; can you blame them? Pain makes you desperate. Most people would elect to live with all the sufferings that accompany substance abuse than live in constant, often severe, pain.
In a country where medical marijuana is near impossible to obtain, where pain management clinics are expensive, what options are there for Irish people with chronic pain? With addictive painkillers, illegal (oftentimes dangerous) substances and alcohol as the only real source of relief for Irish sufferers, the medical community is offering its patients a choice between addiction or a life of pain.
However, chronic pain is not purely restricted to the physical toll it takes on a body, it also (so very kindly) has the ability to invade every sphere of your life.
As a student, it certainly affected my ability to work as, typically, you are restricted to part-time jobs in the service industry while attending college. However, bar work, retail and food service all require long hours of standing on your feet. While this is hardly ideal for anybody, for somebody with chronic back pain it can be agonising work.
Chronic pain can also affect college work. In universities, we are often offered only cheap plastic seating with low desks in lectures and libraries. I certainly struggle with my back during exam season when I spend hours ignoring the pain caused by the cheap seating.
It’s hard to explain to peers and professors again and again why you’ve had to miss out on classes or events, and after a while, it begins to sound like an excuse. That is the problem with an invisible injury, people aren’t aware of it and often, don’t understand it. For example, I have a tendency to find myself standing on the bus in the throes of severe pain because it is protocol to offer your seat to someone who visibly requires it. The problem is that no one can see that you need it as well.
That’s one of the difficulties of non-physically symptomatic chronic pain; it’s not visible from the outside. You are stuck with a seemingly invisible ailment that, very simply, makes life harder. The same is true for people who suffer from mental illnesses, period pains, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, the list goes on. There is a misunderstood and massive difficulty in having to put so much effort into living the way that other people do so easily.
So, what is the point of this article? It wasn’t just me complaining for 800 words or so (although that is largely true), instead I want to give you an insight into the struggles that people face on a daily basis. To foster compassion for anybody who finds the simple things harder and struggles through anyway, and to call for a reformation in the way in which the medical community treats those dealing with chronic pain. Dismissal and a painkiller is not an acceptable prescription.
Aisling Mac Aree – Features Editor