A few thoughts on pain

Thanks to my fibromyalgia, I’m in pain pretty much all the time. As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about pain — mostly in the “dammit, I wish my hands didn’t hurt so much” sense, but sometimes I get philosophical.

I’ve been getting really philosophical since a conversation from my occasional personal trainer at the local 24 Hour Fitness. The exchange went roughly like this:

Him: How’s the weight? Too much? Just right?

Me: (between grunts) Just right. It hurts, but it’s the cold kind of pain, you know? The kind that doesn’t mean damage, just effort.

Him: What do you mean?

Me: You know, there are different kinds of pain, they mean different things.

Him: There are?

Now, before we get on his case too much, my occasional trainer is young and has never seriously injured himself. He hasn’t been in a lot of pain.

Me, I’ve injured myself a hell of a lot in my 33 years. As a kid, I had ridiculous growing pains. I won the barn’s frequent flier award because I fell off my pony so much (I was doing competitive jumping, and my pony wasn’t terribly interested in going over the higher jumps unless I set her up just right). I’ve strained and sprained my wrists and ankles more times than you can shake a stick at. I have been doing a martial art that involves flipping yourself through the air since I was a teenager (though I don’t do those falls anymore, I used to, and if you do them wrong, they hurt). I had my wisdom teeth out while in college, used to get migraines so bad they made me throw up, and have had major abdominal surgery, plus my knee surgery, plus the laparoscopic abdominal surgery a couple months ago.

And, of course, there are the regular aches and pains you get from being sick or falling or burning yourself or whatever. I’ve always been pretty rough and tumble, so I got bruised a LOT as a kid (and fairly often even now). It’s a minor miracle I haven’t broken any bones. *knock wood*

Now that I have fibro, I can’t always trust my body’s pain signals. Things that aren’t doing any real damage are sometimes excruciating — I’m having to learn to endure the pain I get from lactic acid buildup as I get back to riding a bike, for example. As anybody who’s heard about what happens to folks who can’t feel pain knows, this is a problem. Pain is a vital signal the body uses to warn against serious damage. I’ve had to learn to distinguish between false alarms and the real deal.

It’s kind of like that story about the boy who cried wolf — he raised the alarm when there was no wolf enough times that when there was one, nobody believed him. So, I’ve taught myself (mostly) how to tell when the little punk is lying and when there really is a problem.

That doesn’t mean that the pain doesn’t affect me — I have a VERY high pain tolerance now, but the body’s limbic system responds automatically to pain even if my conscious self knows it’s not a problem. Being in pain makes my adreniline glands go, sets off the endorphin reaction that causes runner’s high, and all that stuff. It’s tiring and makes me edgy, cranky, and tired. It’s sort of like if the head of the village knows the boy is lying about the wolf but the villagers get restless because they aren’t sure.

Not to mention, some kinds of pain are a lot easier to endure than others. Pain that I have some sort of control over is pretty easy, even when it’s really bad — the pain of getting waxed, or tattooed, or cutting a splinter out of my hand. Pain I can’t do anything about isn’t too bad if it’s a familiar pain — the way my knees used to ache when I climbed stairs or the pain of a sprained wrist. What’s really difficult is pain I can’t do anything about and am not familiar with. My normal day-to-day fibro pain is pain I’m used to, but when I have a flareup, it’s a lot harder. The pain after my knee surgery was totally unfamiliar, and extremely difficult to deal with because it was so unpredictable and different from what I was used to feeling in those joints. I’m starting to get used to the lingering pain as my tendons and ligaments finish adjusting to the changes the surgery wrought, but it’s taking a while.

A side effect of all of this is that I recognize different types of pain, the same way that some cultures have lots of words for things other cultures don’t (Hawaiian words for lava, for example). And that’s why my trainer had no idea what I was talking about.

I’m not sure what my point is with this rambling, but I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot lately and wanted to get it down in writing.

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6 Responses to A few thoughts on pain

  1. jillian says:

    I think I know what you mean (though not to the same extent). I’m generally okay with pain that is there because I *did* something. Like when I cut myself peeling a mango or run up the stairs too fast. But the pain that I get from eating too much salt the day before? That’s just in random muscles and joints of my body, and jumps around pain levels from minute to minute? I become mentally exhausted from that. I become a big-ole baby.

    I also feel the same way about exhaustion – i have different kinds of exhaustion, and some I can power through – some not so much. It has nothing to do with the level or length – it has something to do with the source that I can’t put my finger on just yet.

    Good thoughts!!

    • Ealasaid says:

      Thanks! Yeah, the cause of the pain makes a big difference. So does the consistency — that kind of mobile pain you’re talking about suuuuuucks.

      That’s interesting about exhaustion! I haven’t spent as much time thinking about exhaustion, although I experience it enough you’d think I would have.

  2. alienbooknose says:

    I know what you’re getting at! Having had arthritis for as long as I can remember (I developed it at about 18 months of age) I had to develop a pain vocabulary pretty young. It had to be good enough to explain to doctors and also to distinguish acute pain from arthritis pain. At some point in my teenagerhood I realized that other people did not have this vocabulary and had no idea what I mean by cold vs hot pain or white vs red vs grey pain.

    I know what you mean about the cold pain that’s just pain, not “I just hurt myself.” That’s arthritis flares for me. (Day to day arthritis pain is sort of warm and mild, just an ache.)

    • Ealasaid says:

      Good to hear from someone else who knows what I mean about the vocab. It’s so weird trying to talk to people who just don’t have the same experience. XD

      I sometimes feel like an artist who knows the names of hundreds of colors trying to talk to someone who only knows the Crayola eight-pack names. XD

  3. Keith says:

    There is a way to mitigate your limbic response to pain. It is highly psychological and is used in the military especially the Army and Marines and SF groups.

    It’s loosely referred to as Battle Mind. It is the ability to keep adrenaline from hitting your system and affecting judgement and agility.

    In medieval days adrenaline was great. You needed it swing a sword and charge over hills and fields. Firing a gun however it’s bad.

    You get shaky, jittery, and your focus is all over the place. You can’t hit anything when your breathing is up and you and your weapon sight is shaking like a leaf in wind. That’s why battle mind or combat focus is so important.

    It takes a long time to develop and requires you putting yourself in stressful situations that cause adrenaline to hit your system. Then you have to force your body into stopping that reaction.

    “Hey it’s OK. We’re just getting shot at. Don’t worry you aren’t in the injury radius of that mortar blast let alone the kill radius. We’re all good. Now where’s my next target?”

    You have to keep telling your body and that this is normal. It’s OK regardless of how unnatural, frightening or painful the situation really is.

    Look into it. I hope this helps.

    • Ealasaid says:

      Keith, that is a great suggestion, thank you so much! I found a few interesting, thorough writeups about battlemind via Google and have them in my reading browser window. Looks like really interesting, useful stuff.