Learning How to Live with Chronic Pain

By Barby Ingle, Columnist

When I became so debilitated by chronic pain and doctors could not figure out what was going on, I could no longer hold my life together. It was a minor auto accident that triggered crazy symptoms that didn’t make sense to me or my doctors.

When the first symptoms of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) began, I thought I was being ridiculous. The pain was overwhelming. It took all of my attention and energy just to be able to focus. It felt a burning fire in my face, neck and shoulder, and my skin became discolored. I also started having balance issues and falling.

I remember at a practice I was working with a male cheerleader and we did a stunt. Everyone around us was yelling, “Coach, stand up straight. What are you doing?”


I kept saying I was straight, but then I looked down. I didn’t even know how he was holding me up in the air. I was in the weirdest position; legs bent, leaning forward, arms not in the right place. Until I saw what my body was doing I had no idea what everyone was so upset about. 

I was coaching, heading to counseling appointments, chiropractors and neurologists, and sleeping in my office or wherever I could find a place to sleep. It wasn’t solid sleep. It was for 20 to 45 minutes at a time. I was overwhelmed physically and emotionally, not being able to coach like I wanted, but still trying not to let my team members down.

I wish I could go back and help them understand what I was going through. I wish I had let go of my job sooner so that they could have had a better year. I didn’t know that what I was dealing with was not going to be as easily overcome as endometriosis was. That was a struggle that made me believe everything was just a challenge that I could get past. Not this time. It was going to take years, financial strain, and learning new life skills. I just didn’t know it. 

I was no longer able to handle my dream job of coaching cheer and dance at a Division I-A university. My business started to crumble and eventually closed. My husband stopped supporting me emotionally and physically. I didn’t have the energy to take care of me and him any longer. One good thing that came from it was that after our separation he found God, and was baptized into the Catholic Church the next Easter.

The biggest reason our marriage fell apart was he had me feeling that it was all in my head, and tried to convince my family and our friends of the same. My psychologist and psychiatrist both told me he was wrong. What I had was situational depression and they assured me what I was going through was normal. They had faith in me and helped me get faith back in myself. 

We began marriage counseling before the accident because of our struggling relationship, but that was no longer an issue because the relationship was over. We were divorced within 3 months of filing for separation. Now I needed help getting my new life in order and to continue counseling, until I felt I had the life tools I needed to be the best me I could be.  

I rated the physical pain I had from the accident in the beginning as a level ten. I did not think I could take anything worse. But as each surgery or procedure was performed and the pain only worsened, I wanted sometimes to have that first pain back.

As our bodies get “used to the pain,” it sometimes gets easier to manage and deal with. With each additional trauma and spread of RSD, the pain I thought was unbearable becomes a livable level. But I wasn’t living.

“Reflex” is any process in your body that automatically goes haywire. “Sympathetic” is your sympathetic nervous system, which makes you feel like you are on fire and you can’t put it out. “Dystrophy” is the loss of muscle and bone, which left me in a wheelchair for many years.

As an athlete, it was difficult to understand how working out and pushing myself were making me worse, but it was. Pushing myself too far taught me that it can cause damage. I realized that doing this was creating further damage to my body and pain pathways. I learned that trying smarter is more important than trying harder.

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain FoundationShe is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website. 

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