If you’ve ever had to deal with pain — chronic migraines or muscle aches — you know how hard it is to deal with. You also know it’s hard to overcome. Which is why we chatted with Melanie Thernstrom, author of ‘The Pain Chronicles.’ In her book, she discusses what it’s like to deal with constant pain — and offers tips on how you can start to feel better.
Q: Tell me about your experience with chronic pain. How did it start and how did it affect your life?
A: Almost 14 years ago, I went swimming across a pond with a boyfriend. Nothing happened — I didn’t suffer an injury — but that night I was kept awake by a strange burning pain in my neck and right shoulder. I tried ignoring it, but it got worse and eventually began to effect every aspect of my life. Although I didn’t like to talk about it, it was all I could think about — I couldn’t so much as pick up a cup of tea without aggravating my pain. Several years later, I got an MRI and was diagnosed with a type of osteoarthritis which causes nerve problems and radiates pain through my neck, right shoulder, arm and the right side of my face.
Q: How is pain misunderstood?
A: I thought all pain fit was acute pain (pain from injury) and would eventually heal itself over time. I didn’t understand that chronic pain is a disease in and of itself. The longer you live in pain, the less likely it is to ever go away — persistent pain causes pathological changes in the brain and spinal cord.
I was [also] surprised to find that pain sensitivity is affected by gender (women are more pain-sensitive than men), ethnicity, age, obesity and various other factors. There’s a new idea that developing chronic neuropathic (nerve-related) pain may have a genetic basis.
Q: What helped with your chronic pain?
A: I think my experience is similar to that of many patients — it wasn’t a single treatment that helped me, but a combination of things that made my pain become manageable.
I get Botox injections in my neck and shoulder to paralyze the muscles and prevent them from going into spasm. I take Celebrex, an anti-inflammatory drug, which is in the same category as aspirin, Motrin and Aleve, but is more powerful and does not irritate the stomach. I also take Cymbalta, which was originally invented as an anti-depressant, but is now recognized and prescribed to treat pain because it increases the amount of certain neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin and norepinephrine) that regulate pain as well as mood.
The treatment that has helped me the most, however, is physical therapy.
Q: What’s your advice for anyone struggling with chronic pain?
A: I would encourage patients to learn about pain so they understand all of the treatment options available and to create a plan that works for them. There are some medical problems which can be “left to the doctor” to take charge of, but pain is not one of them.
A Quick Review of Editor:
I have wasted a lot of time being angry at normal/conventional people. They seem to have little tolerance or compassion for those who are different. I passed my autism on to my three children. Fortunately we are all “high functioning”. Being unable to grasp conventional behavior, I reacted to my circumstances abnormally. All my children slept in my bed way longer than is normal. I also joined them in the tub for bathing and for play afterwards.
The consequence was that they learned to engage socially and grew the ability to enjoy relationships. That didn’t help them an awful lot in school, because most of their attempts to engage socially were rejected. However they have maintained their interest in social interaction and probably have more friends than they would have had otherwise. I however didn’t have that sort of support when I was very young. I have only succeeded personally because of my ability to mimic normalcy. It’s only a survival technique. A friend gave me the book “An Anthropologist On Mars”… it helped me sort things out.