How to Manage Pain
|A number of technologically advanced methods, from electrical
stimulation to potent drugs, have been developed to help people deal
with chronic pain. Some of these can be quite effective. Yet
to a surprising degree, pain can be managed at the level of the
mind -- sometimes as effectively as through medical means.
Unlike many other cultures, where pain is seen as part of life, the typical American attitude to pain is, Turn it off -- as soon as possible. Television ads for analgesics carry the message, You don't deserved pain, and our product will get rid of it in only 20 seconds -- our rival's product will take 30 seconds.
I don't mean to say that pain-relieving medications should be abandoned -- for they can be very valuable.
The danger occurs when people think first of getting rid of the pain -- and are no longer impelled by it to address the issues it raises.
If we run to the medicine cabinet every time we feel a twinge, we deprive ourselves of valuable advice from our bodies... and may fail to take the avoiding actions that would prevent the problem from recurring.
After many years of working with leprosy patients and diabetics for whom lack of pain sensitivity can lead to loss of limbs and other tragic consequences, I have come to believe that pain is actually a great gift. It compels us to notice when some part of the body is in danger. People who don't have the ability to feel pain envy it: They don't know when to snatch their hands from a cooking pot that they don't know is hot, avoid walking on an injured foot or seek treatment for a minor infection before it becomes advanced.
Instead of seeing pain as an enemy to be attacked and destroyed, we can benefit by listening to what our aches and pains have to say -- and in doing so, we'll often find that they are friiendly.
Example: If I get a headache, instead of thinking, What a nuisance -- I haven't got time for this, I take an hour or so to think through what might be causing the pain. Am I accepting too much stress? Have I stopped living in accordance with my priorities? Have I been pushing myself beyond endurance?
I believe that if people would take the time to resolve major conflicts in their lives -- instead of dulling the pain so they can rush back to their destructive routines -- they would suffer far less from headaches, stomachaches, back pain and other chronic problems.
We can deal with pain more constructively by understanding and appreciating how the system works.
Pain has Three Stages
Pain begins with a signal (Stage 1) sent by nerve endings at the point that is damaged or in danger.This signal travels along the spinal cord as a message to the brain (Stage 2). Often, reflexes will cause us to take avoiding action before the next stage is reached -- and we're never even aware of a pain sensation.
In addition, distractions -- such as the excitement of an athletic event or family reunion, the tension of a political debate, the thrill of an amusement park ride or the stress of battle -- can temporarily prevent transmission of the pain message. Think of the base of the brain as a gateway through which pain signals must pass before they're recognized and interpreted by the brain. When the body is sending many kinds of nerve signals at once, a kind of bottleneck forms -- not all the signals can get through.
The conscious perception of pain only occurs after the message reaches the brain -- and the brain chooses a response. Many kinds of narcotics work at this level -- but while these drugs can relieve pain, many are highly addictive. Fortunately, it's at this third stage that pain has the greatest potential to be affected for better or worse, by what we think about it.
Using the mind to manage pain. . .
Even at the signal and message stages of pain, over which we have little conscious control, we can still make a profound difference by listening to the pain and looking for a pattern.
Under what conditions does discomfort occur? Can we experiment with healthy changes -- in movement, diet, posture, sleeping habits or other practices -- to lessen it?
|Pain and the mind. . .
But when our attempts at avoiding stressful conditions fail to relieve chronic pain, we can draw on the power of the mind to affect our perception of it.
We can learn about those factors that magnify the awareness of pain...find ways to control those factors and begin to manage the pain, instead of feeling that pain is controlling us.
|Factors that can
exacerbate pain include...
Fear: If I feel a twinge and wonder if it's arthritis or cancer, I will become obsessed with the pain, and my worry will make me less able to tolerate it.
When we can't get rid of pain, a common response is to stop
activity -- which can lead
us to focus on the pain to the exclusion of everything else. That
is one reason pain at night almost always feels worse than during the
day -- we don't have our normal routines to distract us.
It's true that you should take advantage of pain's protective function by limiting activities that hurt the affected area. But that doesn't mean eliminating every other stimulus from your life.
Anger and bitterness. As a hand surgeon [Dr. Paul] is sometimes called upon to operate on someone who has filed suit against a motorist or other person responsible for his/her injury.
[He's] not against fair compensation, but today's awards are often so high that it pays the person to be deformed... and I've noticed that many of the patients involved in bitter lawsuits take much longer to heal. I don't believe they're faking or imagining the pain -- but their anger at and desire to punish the person who hurt them seems to enhance the pain... and may even interfere with the body's healing mechanism.
Paul Brand, MD, world-renowned hand surgeon and leprosy specialist.
His years of pioneering work among leprosy patients earned him numerous
prestigious awards. Dr. Brand has coauthored many books,
including, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants. Harper
-- Excerpt from Doctor's Little Black Bag of Remedies and Cures. Boardroom