Understanding chronic pain, and thriving
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on March 24, 2015
Pain is a complex and troublesome human experience, as difficult to understand and explain as love.
For Neil Pearson, this definition of pain resonates most.
In fact, when working with chronic pain sufferers, he asks them to complete this sentence in multiple ways: Pain is ____.
“Understanding pain from as many points of view is an important task for people in pain. We can understand its complexity so much more if we start completing this sentence with as many options as possible,” Pearson said in an interview.
Pearson is a Physical Therapist, Yoga Therapist, Clinical Assistant Professor and the founder of www.LifeIsNow.ca.
Pearson explained that Western science usually views pain as a medical condition, and, yes, there are benefits to treatments provided by health professionals, particularly pain management specialists. The ultimate purpose of such treatment is to enhance quality of life, and they can be successful.
Be aware, Pearson warned, that chronic pain is not always an accurate indication of tissue health, and the most powerful way to influence pain is through self-care.
Explore an integrated approach to living with chronic pain. Tend to the body, mind and spirit, and you can open the door to understanding your pain and even thrive.
“Look beyond fixing the body,” Pearson said.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., aptly described the pain mind/body connection in her book “Yoga for Pain Relief.” She explained that traditional medicine always looked to repairing illness and injury in the physical body to lessen pain, but sufferers should not ignore their thoughts, emotions, expectations and memories.
“Most chronic pain has its roots in a physical injury or illness, but it is sustained by how that initial trauma changes not just the body but also the mind-body relationship,” McGonigal wrote in “Yoga for Pain Relief.”
Indeed, more stress leads to muscle tension, more pain, more anxiety and even more pain.
There may be more healing beyond the body.
Cradle the mind
Once a month, they’ll sit in a circle. Some have arthritis while others live with multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, shingles, accident injuries or cancer.
They’re members of the Chronic Pain Support Group.
It’s in the safety of this circle that members share the emotional side of pain that eerily resembles the grief process. There’s denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and, eventually, acceptance.
“The difference is that grief usually has an ending. Chronic pain doesn’t,” said Patti Mehaffie, facilitator of the Fort Myers, FL, support group that’s affiliated with the American Chronic Pain Association.
Pain can shift the mindset of even the most active people to “I hurt; therefore, I can’t.”
The support group addresses the can-dos, and all members share how they have been able to contribute again, to their families as well as to their communities, in spite of their chronic pain. When someone’s entire role shifts due to chronic pain, the group offers coping skills, peer support and validation for both sufferers and their families.
“We all understand,” Mehaffie said. “Life isn’t easy. Things are going to happen. Sometimes you may feel alone, but you don’t have to go through it alone.”
Cradle the body
Yoga has deeply resonated with the group simply because members thought their pain wouldn’t let them do it, Mehaffie said.
The recent session was guided by Anna Withrow, owner of Yoga Bird Studio, Fort Myers.
The first place Withrow went was the breath. She explained that the goal was for the students to “de-couple” the breath from the pain response, so they don’t become mutually reinforcing.
Basic yoga breathwork for pain
- Begin with relaxed belly breathing. Sit in a chair, and allow your belly to be soft. Inhale for a count of four, and allow your belly to inflate. Exhale for four. Breathe this way for two minutes.
- Humming Bee Breath. Close your ears with your thumbs, and place your fingers gently over your closed eyes. Inhale deeply, and then hum while exhaling as slowly as possible. Allow the vibrations of your voice to massage your body. Breathe in rounds for two minutes.
- Seated cat/cow. While seated with your feet firmly planted to the floor, place your hands on your knees and inhale, expand the belly and gently arch the lower back and look up. As you exhale, tuck your tail and drop your chin to your chest. Continue for two minutes.
- Alternate nostril breathing. Using the fingers of your right hand, close the left side of your nose and inhale through the right. Close the nose completely and hold the breath for a few seconds. Exhale left. Close the right side of the nose and inhale left. Close the nose completely and hold the breath. Exhale right. Repeat for two minutes.
- Weighted breathing. Only if you are comfortable, lie on the floor or on your bed with a rice bag or book on your stomach. Close your eyes, and lift the bag or book with your inhale, and lower it with your exhale. Breathe for two minutes or longer.
- Self-massage either seated in a chair or lying down. Use your fingertips to gently massage your upper forehead along your hairline and move down your temples, your jaw and to your neck, avoiding any area of pain.
- Close with restorative yoga postures or with a full body scan. Sit or lie down with your eyes closed. Linked with your breath, direct your attention to each part of your body from your crown to your toes. Notice any sensations, and practice non-judgment and detachment. Click on the online edition to listen to a full body scan.
“All of the ways of working with pain that I use are leading students to become witnesses of the experience, to move away from identifying with or owning the pain. We must be humble and both realistic and optimistic about living with, managing, and healing pain, so the approach is subtle and multi-faceted,” Withrow said.
To view Neil Pearson’s videos and body awareness resources, visit www.LifeIsNow.ca.