Pain Companion: Losing Your Smarts to Pain

By Sarah Anne Shockley, Columnist

In my last column, When Pain Hijacks Your Brain, we looked at a couple of ways that living with chronic pain affects cognitive ability; specifically, blank spaces and brain freeze.

This month we’ll look at memory loss and overall loss of brain power, and share some tips I’ve learned about mitigating their impact.

What to Do About Memory Loss            

Can’t remember what you did yesterday or even two minutes ago? Short-term memory loss is common for people in pain. I believe it is because the body and brain are simply overloaded having to deal with compromised health, and the overall stress and exhaustion that pain creates in the system.                   

Sure, forgetting things happens to everyone. But for those of us living with chronic pain, it seems to happen more often and it takes longer for our brains to come back online.                 

Write yourself notes and stick them everywhere. Write the note immediately or you will forget not only what was supposed to go on the note, but that you were writing a note at all. (No kidding)                               

I keep the smallest size of Post-it Notes in my car and stick notes on the dashboard so I don’t forget where I’m supposed to be later or what I need to do when I get home. I leave these little pads all over the house with pens nearby.                   

I have Post-its all over my computer, my desk and my kitchen, and I just throw them out when I’m finished with them. I have gotten into the habit of writing EVERYTHING down the minute it comes into my head and sticking it immediately where I will find it later.                   

What about the problem of walking over to the Post-it pad and forgetting what you’re supposed to write there on the way? (You’re only laughing because something similar has happened to you, I’m sure!)

Go back to the physical spot where you were when the thought came to you and put yourself in the exact same position and wait a moment. Somehow, the body and brain sort of coordinate in resetting yourself back in time, and then your brain often sends you the same message again.                   

Oh, and don’t forget to have the Post-its and pen already in hand.        

What to Do About Loss of Brain Power                   

My brain in pain can barely make sense of how to balance my bank accounts. Truly. It scares me to look at a row of numbers. Not because numbers are scary to me or I’m terrible at math – I aced all my graduate finance and economics courses – it scares me because, when in pain, I can’t make heads or tails of them. It’s like looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs.                   

It is incredibly disconcerting to lose your smarts to pain. Focusing on anything becomes nearly impossible. I remember having a vocational aptitude test done after I was injured and not being able to read a high school level paragraph or answer the questions appropriately.

I sat there and reread the same three-sentence paragraph about four times and simply couldn’t make any sense of what they were asking me to do with it. If you’ve had an experience like this, you know how frightening it can be to realize you just don’t have access to your normal cognitive functioning. It’s like someone turned the lights off upstairs.

Your brain in pain is simply not firing on all cylinders or most of its energy is going to dealing with the pain you’re in and healing your body. There just isn’t much brainpower available to you for normal cognitive processes.                   

This was true for me during the most acute part of my pain and it went on for quite some time. Thankfully, I have been able to recover much more access to my cognitive processes since then. So, please know that if you are going through the worst of this kind of side effect right now, it can get better as you move out of the most acute pain. You can get your brain back.             

For the purpose of regaining a modicum of brainpower, and for using some of my unused mental energy, I started doing extremely easy Sudoku puzzles, a popular Japanese number game.                   

At first, doing Sudoku worked like a sleeping pill because I quickly wore my brain out just trying to make sense of the very easiest puzzles and basically knocked myself out. I kept at it as a nightly sleep aid and eventually I was able to complete the easy puzzles. I usually had to erase what I’d already filled in and start over about 3 or 4 times in order to finish one small puzzle.                

I found that, in addition to acting like a benign sleeping pill, Sudoku helped bring my brain back online over time. I was able to progress from Easy to Medium to Hard. (I have not graduated to the Evil level yet.)

This tells me that even if the brain is hijacked by pain, it is possible to bring it back by starting small. Simple crossword puzzles can work too, but initially I found that even these were too demanding and frustrating. I could come up with a number from 1 to 10 more easily than a specific word.      

There are other ways to bring the brain back online as well: Scrabble, Monopoly, cribbage, backgammon or any other game requiring some counting, but are not overwhelmingly complex.

Jigsaw puzzles, origami, scrapbooks, photo collections; anything that requires organizing visually can also be useful. If you have enough mental energy for it, small amounts of foreign language study can also do the trick. Many public library systems have easy and free courses you can use online.

These ideas seem really simple, I know, but that’s exactly where to start. Really easy and really simple.

Sarah Anne Shockley suffers from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a painful condition that affects the nerves and arteries in the upper chest. Sarah is the author of The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain.

 Sarah also writes for her blog, The Pain Companion.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.