I feel honored by the opportunity to contribute my thoughts on making peace with chronic pain. Not only have I been working as a therapist and trainer in the field of chronic pain and co-existing disorders for the last 25 years, but also I have been living with my own chronic pain condition for over 26 years and still have periodic episodes of pain flare-ups, where I need to put into practice all that I’ve learned.
As is the experience of everyone living with a pain condition, some days are better than others for me. But one thing is certain: Pain does not control my life.
When we’re willing to consider our pain more of an ally than an enemy, the next step to developing an effective chronic pain management plan is learning all we can about our pain and how to intervene in an appropriate way that continually improves the quality of our lives.
Our pain system is a crucial component of our make-up and is essential to our survival. Can you imagine how bad it would get if we didn’t have pain receptors, and we kept putting ourselves in situations that seriously damaged our bodies?
Picture this: You’re in the kitchen, talking on the phone, and you inadvertently put your hand down on a hot burner. Without pain receptors, your first indication that something is wrong is the smell of cooked flesh — yours!
Pain is the signal that’s trying to tell you something is wrong — that you need to find out what is it and then learn how to manage it. I nonetheless realize it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the pain generator.
Keep in mind that when we’re in the middle of a pain flare-up, the important question is, “What can I do, right now, to manage my pain in a healthy way that supports me physically, emotionally and spiritually?” The answer will be different for each person.
Regarding pain versus suffering: The psychological meaning that we assign to a physical pain signal will determine whether we simply feel pain (“Ouch, this hurts!”) or experience suffering (“Because I hurt, something awful or terrible is happening!”).
Although pain and suffering are often used interchangeably, there is an important distinction that needs to be made: While pain simply is a warning signal telling us that something is wrong with our bodies, suffering can result from the meaning or interpretation our brains assign to the pain signal.
Many people believe, “I shouldn’t have pain!” or, “Because I have pain and am having trouble managing my pain, there must be something wrong with me.”
A big step toward effective pain management occurs when we can reduce our level of suffering, by identifying and changing our thinking and beliefs about the pain – which in turn decreases our stress and overall suffering. Because of the two parts (pain and suffering), pain management must also have two components — physical and psychological.
The way we sense or experience pain — its intensity and duration — can affect how well we are able to manage it. For example, anticipation of an expected pain level can influence the degree to which we experience pain:
In some cases, when anticipation of an expected pain level is lowered, the brain responds by influencing special neurons. These neurons in turn render the brain less responsive to an incoming pain signal. Herein lays the rationale to include biofeedback, positive self-talk, meditation, and relaxation response training as part of a pain management plan.
Stephen Grinstead is the Senior Consultant and Trainer for the Gorski-CENAPS® Corporation. He is also an author and internationally recognized expert in preventing relapse related to chronic pain disorders and is the developer of the Addiction-Free Pain Management® (APM) System. He has lived — and thrived — with his own chronic pain condition for over 26 years and often has the opportunity to practice what he preaches.