Does Chronic Pain Affect Memory?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Pain is a complex experience. It not only affects us biologically, but we also experience it cognitively and emotionally. Does it affect our memory? You bet it does.

Chronic pain patients often complain of memory problems and there are numerous studies which confirm these challenges are indeed a reality.

Twenty-four studies evaluating working memory (WM) and/or long-term memory (LTM) in chronic pain groups and control groups were reviewed last year by French researchers. WM was defined as the processing and manipulation of information within a short period of time (a few seconds), while LTM involved the “storage” of knowledge and memories over a long period of time.

Concentration and memory deficits on a daily basis were the most frequently reported cognitive difficulties. Memory complaints included forgetfulness and problems performing everyday tasks and conversations.

Emotional distress common to pain patients, such as depression, anxiety and rumination (the inability to divert attention away from pain), was also found to play an important role in memory difficulties.

One study compared two groups of pain patients who had minor or major memory complaints. Between the two, no significant differences were found with regard to age, gender, education level, marital status, medication use, long-term pain or pain intensity.

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However, patients in the major memory complaint group suffered from emotional distress to a significantly greater degree. They also reported a lack of family support and discontent with their social and sexual lives. These were noted as additional daily sources of suffering for this group.

Adding to potential negative effects on memory were comorbidities which many pain syndromes share. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and chronic fatigue could alone or combined affect memory. A major concern expressed was the need to disentangle pain-related cognitive effects from those resulting from these comorbidities.

Medications and Memory

The review really became interesting when it came to medication, because researchers found contradictory results. One European study reported that opioids exerted a negative effect on working memory -- finding a clear association between higher levels of analgesics and perceived memory dysfunction in chronic back pain patients. Some studies confirmed that medication can have a negative effect on memory, but others showed improvements in memory following analgesic treatment. That suggests that effective pain relief may also reverse pain-induced memory impairment.

The researchers concluded it was unclear whether analgesic medications are beneficial or detrimental, because both scenarios were reported.

Age was also identified as an important factor in the relationship between chronic pain and memory, but not in the way you may think. Surprisingly, it was shown that an increase in age did not additionally affect memory performance.

One study reported that gender and age significantly affected memory decline in those suffering from chronic migraine headaches. Cognitive decline in migraineurs was greater among younger individuals, and females showed greater decline during headache intervals than males. It was acknowledged that gender as a factor in pain-related experience is poorly investigated.

Like all reviews, this one has its limitations. There was a “large heterogeneity” of tests within the 24 studies. This diversity of tests did not allow for a suggestion of which memory processes were altered by chronic pain itself. The study populations were also heterogeneous regarding pain etiologies and an assessment of the intensity of pain was not performed.

Studies which included a mix of chronic pain disorders did not provide data on whether specific memory impairments were more frequently observed in specific disorders. The authors suggest there is a need for comparative studies across pain-related disorders in order to determine whether impairments are pain-related or a consequence of other pathophysiological features.

These numerous studies confirmed the memory decline that is often reported by chronic pain patients. Even if these effects are mild, the impact on quality of life could be substantial as they may indeed worsen suffering including depression, anxiety, and limitations on activity.

Researchers suggested that examining memory function should be part of the clinical assessment of chronic pain patients. The spectrum of cognitive difficulties must become acknowledged and understood in order to find ways to overcome them.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for over 30 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit 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.

Anxiety Is a Symptom, Not a Diagnosis

By Dr. David Hanscom, PNN Columnist

Every living creature on this planet survives by avoiding threats and gravitating towards rewards. The driving force is staying alive and survival of the species. This is accomplished by the nervous system taking in data from the environment through each body sensor and analyzing it.

The first step in this process is for your brain to define reality. A cat is a cat because your brain has unscrambled visual signals and determined the nature of the animal. A cat’s meow is analyzed from the auditory receptors. Your nervous system then links the two inputs together to associate the sound as one that emanates from a cat.

The reason why I am presenting the obvious is to make the point that nothing exists without your brain gathering data, unscrambling it and determining what is.

One of the responsibilities of the central nervous system is to maintain the delicate balance of the body’s chemistry. There are numerous chemicals to keep track of. When there is a threat, hormones will be secreted that increase your chances of survival.

Some of the core response hormones are adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphins, histamines and cortisol. I won’t list the effects of each of these survival hormones, but the net result is an increased capacity to flee from danger.

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All of these allow you to leap into action, but what compels you to do so? It is a feeling of dread that we call anxiety. It is so deep and uncomfortable that you have no choice but to take action.

Anxiety is a symptom, not a diagnosis, disease or disorder. Therefore, it isn’t treatable by addressing it as the problem. Once you understand anxiety is only a warning mechanism, you can address the causes of it.

The Curse of Consciousness 

The universal problem of being human is what I call the “Curse of Consciousness.” Recent neuroscience research has shown that threats in the form of unpleasant thoughts are processed in a similar area of the brain as physical threats and with the same chemical response.  

This curse is that none of us can escape our thoughts, so we are subjected to an endless hormonal assault on our body. This translates into more than 30 physical symptoms and many disease states, including autoimmune disorders and intractable pain. The worst symptom is relentless anxiety.  

In my personal experience and working with thousands of pain patients, it is the mental pain -- manifested by anxiety – that becomes intolerable. Anxiety is the essence of human suffering and physical pain is the final insult.  

Since this unconscious survival mechanism has been estimated to be a million times more powerful than your conscious brain, it isn’t responsive to rational interventions to manage or control it. Without anxiety that is unpleasant enough to compel you take action, you wouldn’t survive. Neither would you survive without the drive to seek physiological rewards. 

Direct Your Own Care

Try to view anxiety as the fuel gauge in your car. It lets you know that you are being threatened. Whether the threat is real or perceived doesn’t matter. But you have to allow yourself to feel it before you can understand and deal with it.  

If anxiety is the measure of your body’s survival hormones, then the only way to decrease it is to lower them. This can be accomplished directly through relaxation techniques or by indirectly lowering the reactivity of your brain to dampen the survival response.  

This is accomplished by stimulating your brain to rewire so the response to a threat results in a lower chemical surge and is of shorter duration. The term for this is “neuroplasticity.” Your brain changes every second with new cells, connections and myelin. 

By not wasting energy trying to treat or solve your anxiety, you now have the energy to pursue a new path with a remarkable surge in energy, life forces and creativity.   

How is this accomplished? Learning tools to calm and rewire your nervous system is the core of the Direct your Own Care (DOC) project. These approaches have been known for centuries, but have been buried under the weight of modern information overload and the rapid pace of life.  

DOC is a four-stage process for you to understand the nature of your pain and relevant issues that allows you to figure out your own version of a solution. The clarity you get will help you connect to your own capacity to heal by developing skills to auto-regulate your body’s chemistry from anxiety to relaxed.  

Success in learning to adjust your body’s chemical makeup is based on awareness and openness to learning so change can occur. It is remarkably simple and consistent. Join me in living your life in a manner that you could not conceive was possible – even better than before you were crushed by pain. 

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Dr. David Hanscom is retired spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

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.

Crackdown on Opioids and Benzodiazepines Ignores Their Benefits

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The overdose crisis is driving a lot of panicky policy to more closely regulate the prescribing of scheduled drugs, from oxycodone and other opioids to clonazepam and other benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety.

A California doctor was recently accused of unprofessional conduct and could lose her license for prescribing “excessive amounts of opioid medications and benzodiazepines.” And a New Jersey doctor faces criminal charges for prescribing the so-called “Holy Trinity” of opioids, benzodiazepines and muscle relaxers.

The crackdown on opioids and benzodiazepines may help reduce overdose fatalities, but it also risks depriving people of beneficial drugs. Research is finding new benefits for familiar drugs that may slow diseases and improve quality of life.

In a recent Phase III clinical trial, a “novel” combination drug was shown to ease Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. The drug – called PXT3003 -- provided “meaningful improvement” for people with a hereditary neuropathy that results in a progressive loss of sensation and motor function.

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This is a significant advance for people with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which currently has no treatment. The FDA recently gave PXT3003 its “fast track” designation, which speeds the development of drugs for which there is an unmet medical need.

PXT3003 is a combination of three familiar drugs, naltrexone (an opioid receptor blocker), baclofen (a muscle relaxant), and sorbitol (an alcohol sugar). The how and why of this combination of drugs is not well-understood at present. The manufacturer Pharnext says there are “multiple main mechanisms of action” that improve nerve, muscle and immune cells.

In other words, research on existing drugs with known risk profiles has led to a novel treatment. Ordinarily, the use of an opioid and a muscle relaxant is regarded as clinically inadvisable and is actively counseled against in many prescribing guidelines.

Benzodiazepine Research

A similar outcome is occurring with long-term benzodiazepine therapy in congestive heart failure (CHF). An editorial in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics reported that low-to-moderate doses of benzodiazepines “seem to be helpful in silent myocardial ischemia, angina, essential hypertension, and CHF, especially in patients with comorbid anxiety.”

This builds on research from Taiwan in 2014 showing that anti-anxiety medications are “associated with a decreased risk of cardiac mortality and heart failure hospitalization in patients after a new myocardial infarction.”

Long-term benzodiazepine therapy is already seen as important in the treatment of rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, a condition in which causes people to act out vivid and violent dreams, often injuring themselves or bed partners. Low-dose clonazepam therapy for months or even years turns out to be a highly effective treatment.

In the same fashion, benzodiazepines are used to treat stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes extreme muscle rigidly and spasms that can make walking impossible. According to the National Institutes of Health, therapy to treat stiff-person syndrome includes “anti-anxiety drugs, muscle relaxants, anti-convulsants, and pain relievers.”

‘Political Interference’ in Medicine

But treatments for these disorders and the development of new regimens for other disorders may be impeded under current federal and state laws and guidelines. Recently a coalition of six physician groups called on state legislatures to end their “political interference” in the practice of medicine and the patient-physician relationship.

“The insertion of politics between patients and their physicians undermines the foundation of trust this relationship is built on and inhibits the delivery of safe, timely, and comprehensive care. Outside interference endangers our patients’ health by limiting, and sometimes altogether eliminating, access to medically accurate information and to the full range of health care,” the coaltion warned.

Physicians should never face imprisonment or other penalties for providing necessary care. These laws force physicians to decide between their patients and facing criminal proceedings.
— Coalition of physician groups

“Physicians should never face imprisonment or other penalties for providing necessary care. These laws force physicians to decide between their patients and facing criminal proceedings. Physicians must be able to practice medicine that is informed by their years of medical education, training, experience, and the available evidence, freely and without threat of criminal punishment.”

The statement was released by the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Osteopathic Association and American Psychiatric Association.

As the past couple of years have shown, prescribing guidelines have a way of leading to blanket prohibitions. And a risk of blanket prohibitions is that we may miss important benefits.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Do You Know How To Say No?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Such a tiny word. Such a powerful one. For toddlers and teenagers, saying “No” comes easily. Then something changes. Some of us as adults would rather stick pins in our eyes than say no to anyone. That’s a problem. An even bigger problem if you suffer from chronic pain

You likely know the drill. Your body is screaming in flared pain -- red flags for rest and self-care. But you don’t say no to your neighbour who needs help with a chore. You don’t say no to babysitting your nieces at the last minute. You don’t say no to that extra job your boss asks you to stay late for. 

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The inability to say no is directly linked to our need for approval from others. Why do we crave their positive opinion? There are many reasons, but for our purposes let’s just talk about chronic pain patients and some of the reasons we can’t say no.

The consequences of unrelieved pain can include but are not limited to:  depression, anxiety, impaired function, financial distress, sleep and appetite disturbances, identity erosion, social isolation, relationship conflict, demoralization, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. They can all disconnect you from your family, friends, work and social life.

In a herculean attempt not to relinquish “who we were” before the pain, we don’t say no. Our hearts scream out: “I’m still a son/daughter! I’m still a partner! I’m still a parent! I’m still a good friend! I’m still a valued employee!”  We instinctively try to stay in the group in order to survive. We must be accepted and approved at all costs!

What are the personal costs of not saying no?

Anxiety

We only have so much time and energy, and yours is steadily eroded by other people’s demands. You may begin to experience anxiety attacks. Constant worrying and catastrophizing can lead to heart palpitations, sweating, headaches and other physical manifestations.

Depression

Constantly giving in to the demands of others and consistently falling behind in your own life can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, a major contributor to depression. If you spend your time catering to others without focusing on your owns needs, you can lose track of what you want and who you really are. This loss of identity feeds into anxiety and depression.

Relationship Breakdown

In the beginning, saying yes all the time may be appealing to you and to others. But as time goes by hidden resentments may surface or you may feel manipulated.

If you cannot say no, you’re not being honest about your feelings for fear of hurting someone else’s. You may not even be honest about how much pain you are in.

Honesty is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. Saying yes when you truly want to say no isn’t being honest – to yourself or anyone else.

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Stress

Too much stress isn’t healthy and can be devastating to pained bodies. It’s exhausting trying to please everyone all of the time. Exhausted bodies are stressed bodies. You’re more likely to experience low grade colds or illness, have trouble sleeping, and feel more pain.

The inability to say no is problematic to your mental and physical well-being. It serves no one – not you or others – to be consistently saying yes when your body says no. You are not being true to yourself or to them.

Others cannot see your pain or understand what your needs are, so they are not given a chance to respect them. It’s really a lose-lose situation.

How does a pain sufferer get themselves out of this unrelenting pattern? Here are four tips I’ve learned:

1. Make Your Pain Visible

If you were in a wheelchair, your disability and limitations would be obvious. But when your pain is invisible, others may need to be educated. It’s time to fess up about what you are capable of and what you are not. Your health demands it.

You’ve likely heard this before: If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will never be able to take care of others. Think of the flight attendant teaching us how to use our oxygen masks in case of emergency. You always put your own mask on first to get the oxygen you’ll need to help others. It’s just like that with pain. When your body says no, it becomes you first.

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Some people feel shame in telling others that they suffer from chronic pain. They feel broken or weak and don’t want others to know. This is an erroneous self-belief. It creates an invisible boundary between yourself and the rest of the world.

You = bad, broken. Everyone else = good, whole.

This is emphatically untrue. You are not different from the rest of the world. Everyone suffers in some way, shape or form. It may not be from physical pain, but it will be from something else.

It may not be the easiest conversation you ever have, but it’s one of the most important ones.  Some folks provide educational material about their pain condition to help explain how debilitating it can be. You might be pleasantly surprised when you give people a chance to understand. They may embrace you with compassion, respect your limitations and treat you accordingly – just as you would for a loved one.

If you don’t say no and make your pain visible, they’ll never see the authentic you. They only see a façade: You wearing a “yes” mask. Is that fair to either of you? 

2. Create Boundaries  

When you’re learning how to say no, it’s easy to get caught off guard so be prepared. Sometimes well-meaning loved ones will try to coax or guilt you into doing something you really don’t want to do. Have a narrative ready. It could be something like, “I know I look fine, but my joints are hurting so much it’s getting hard to move. I’m just exhausted and I need your support right now.”

Or perhaps something like: “Sorry, I cannot help with that because I’m in a pain flare today and need to take care of myself. I’d really like to help when I am able to, so next time around, ask me again.”

Boundaries for support from other people need to be firm. If not, you risk no one taking you or your pain seriously.

3. Simplify Your Social Life, But Don’t Abandon It  

What about social occasions? How do you handle an impromptu invitation from a friend when your body is telling you to stay put? Living as well as possible with chronic pain is all about constant adaptations.

Perhaps there is something you could attend if someone else did all of the driving?

Maybe you can go to a potluck dinner, but your contribution is store-bought?

Loved ones want to get together for a meal? Dining out is a terrific choice because there’s no cooking or clean up involved.

Can’t keep up with your friends at the gym? Let them run on their treadmills or go to cardio class while you walk around the track. You can all meet up later for a stretch and a green tea.

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Family wants to go bowling, which is something you’re not physically capable of? No need to miss out. Let them bowl as you sit and chat with them as they take their turns. You might be pleasantly surprised your inner circle is just happy to have you there and that they’ve come to understand your limits

4. Yes, But…

How do you RSVP to an invitation when you have no idea how you will feel at that time?

How about this: “Thanks, I would love to come but there is a chance that it may be a flared pain day for me. Can I confirm with you the day of, if that’s okay?” This is a regular of mine.

It may turn out to be a low pain day, in which case I’m attending.  If it’s a medium pain day, I’ll put my psychotherapy tools to work and go. If it’s a very high pain day, I am staying home.  

Framing it this way makes it much easier for me to bow out at the last minute. I do this both socially and with work-related meetings. If I’m not able to make it, we re-book so they know I really do want to attend, I just need to be well enough to do it.

There are some very special and rare occasions where I will say yes even if my body says no, such as a wedding or special birthday event. In that case, I will not book myself for anything or anyone for a couple of days after so that I can fully recover.

Say no when necessary. Simplify and adapt to your needs when necessary. You first. It’s not selfish, it’s self-compassion. Chronic pain patients could all use more of that. Seek help if you need some.  Most therapists are well-versed in self-compassion.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for over 30 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit 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.

10 Ways to Avoid Depression Over the Holidays

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist

Do you celebrate the holidays or do you secretly dread them? For some of us, the period between Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day can be the most depressing time of the year.

The first reason is that we are exposed to less sunlight during the winter. We need light to maintain our physical, mental and emotional health. There are also societal pressures that can weigh heavily on pain patients, such as not being able to participate in holiday activities. The holidays can make us depressed, financially strained, anxiety ridden, and harder to be around.

Here are some early warning signs of depression:

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions

  • Fatigue and decreased energy

  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness and/or helplessness

  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping

  • Irritability, restlessness

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

  • Overeating or appetite loss

  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems

  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings

  • Thoughts of suicide or a suicide attempt

Take this seriously, as depression carries a high risk of suicide. Anybody who expresses suicidal thoughts or intentions should be taken very seriously. Do not hesitate to call your local suicide hotline immediately.

Depression can cause you to isolate yourself from others, decreasing your mobility and increasing drug dependence. A cycle begins where depression causes and intensifies the pain and stress on your body.

It can be hard to face the emotional aspects of pain, but it is important to look at the signs and be aware of them. Remember, pain causes depression, not the other way around! 

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Depression can keep you from taking care of yourself. You cannot afford to let yourself fall into dark dreary moods. Be sure, no matter how you are feeling, that you are following the goals set for your care, such as taking the correct dose of medication at the correct time of each day.

It may take a little effort to keep healthy habits when you are depressed. Here are 10 tips fellow pain patients, friends with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and I have used over the years.  

  1. Use artificial light sources. The body’s internal biological clock can get really out of sync during the winter season. Bright light therapy becomes an important tool.

  2. Try something new, such as a craft or hobby.

  3. Progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis and meditation can reduce stress and pain levels

  4. Stop doing things you don’t enjoy and do things you like, such as listening to music or aroma therapy.

  5. Physical therapy and exercise can break the cycle of pain and help relieve depression

  6. Make a list of life’s blessings, reminding yourself what you have accomplished in life. Even if you can’t do it now, you could once and no one can take that from you.

  7. Cognitive and behavioral therapies teach pain patients how to avoid negative and discouraging thoughts.

  8. Change everyday routines to ward off physical and emotional suffering

  9. Clean out or organize an area of the house. It could be as simple as clearing a bedside table or filing your medical records. Getting organized in one area of your life can help you manage other areas more successfully.

  10. Seek professional help if you start feeling overwhelmed. Dealing with chronic pain can slow recovery from depression. Specialists should treat both problems together.  

Getting your depression under control will help you focus on managing your health. As you learn to let go of anxiety and stress, it will help lower pain levels and make the holidays more enjoyable.  

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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 Foundation. She 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.

The Abyss of Chronic Pain

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

One afternoon, I was listening to a pain patient attempt to describe the depth of her suffering, and it hit me how dark and deep this hole of chronic pain can be.

I had a flashback to my own experience with pain. Not only did I not know how I ended up in that level of misery, I had no hope and wasn’t being given any answers. I kept descending deeper and deeper into darkness.

Words couldn’t come close to describing my physical and mental suffering, but the image that came to mind was a deep dark abyss. I will never forget what it was like to be there and trapped in the abyss for over 15 years.

One night, I was driving across a bridge when suddenly my heart began to pound.  I couldn’t breathe, began sweating and became light-headed. I thought I was going to die. It was the first of many panic attacks. And it became much worse. I sank into a deep depression.

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I honestly had no clue at the time that my anxiety and other symptoms were all linked together by sustained levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol and histamines.

I couldn’t sleep because of endless racing thoughts. My ears were ringing and my feet constantly burned. I began to get migraine headaches weekly. My scalp itched, and skin rashes would pop up all over my body and then disappear. I experienced intermittent crushing chest pain.

As unpleasant as these physical symptoms were, it wasn’t the worst part of the story.

I began a relentless search for answers. What was happening to me? My life went from being a hard-working young physician with a bright future to just trying to survive. As a spine surgeon in a large city, I had access to the best medical care and underwent all sorts of imaging and blood testing. No one could tell me what was going on. I became increasingly frustrated and moody.

After seven years of this, I lost my marriage. No marriage could have survived the obsessive energy I was using to try and escape from the abyss.

My anxiety progressed to a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is characterized by repetitive and vivid intrusive thoughts. It was brutal. I had always thought that OCD was a joke, but it may be the worst mentally painful experience in human existence. I looked up the treatment and prognosis for it, and it was dismal.

My mind began to play tricks on me. I become an “epiphany addict.” I was sure I could find an answer if I looked hard enough. I read book after book, saw doctors, tried different medications, practiced meditation, and discussed my situation with anyone who would listen. That number grew smaller, as people got tired of listening to me and I became increasingly socially isolated.  

Every aspect of this experience was miserable but the loneliness I felt was the worst. Being alone, I had more time to think about my misery and became fearful that people didn’t want to be around me. I hadn’t realized how terrible being lonely could be.

I wanted to quit being a doctor, but my instincts told me to hang on. I still enjoyed performing complex spine surgery and running my practice. I liked my staff, colleagues and patients. In retrospect, that may have been the one thing that provided the structure to keep me going. My personal life had disintegrated.

As I write this column, I still feel woefully inadequate to find the words to characterize the intensity of my suffering. I was in this hole for over 15 years and crossed the line to end it all.

Learning How to Feel Good Again

Then in 2003, I picked up a book by Dr. David Burns, called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.” It’s about self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy.  Burns was adamant from the beginning of the book that the key to recovery was to start writing. His format is a three-column technique where you write down your disruptive thoughts, categorize them into one of 10 “cognitive distortions,” and then write down more rational thoughts.

I began to write for hours and for the first time in 15 years felt a shift in my mood and thinking. Burns is right, the act of writing is important. There are now over 1,000 research papers documenting the effectiveness of this approach.  

Six months after I began this therapy, I connected (badly) with my deep-seated anger and was completely miserable for about 2 weeks. But as I emerged from this fog, I began to feel better. All of my physical symptoms eventually disappeared, including my headaches, burning in my feet, anxiety, and tinnitus.

It all goes back to the stress hormones. When you are trapped by anything, especially pain, your body is exposed to sustained levels of stress chemicals and each organ will react in its own specific way. Today, my symptoms remain at minimal levels unless they are triggered, and I have learned how to quickly return to feeling good.

There are many additional layers to the healing journey that are presented on my website. Each person will relate to the concepts in a different way, but the outcomes have been consistently good. There is a recent research paper that shows simply learning about the neuroscience of chronic pain can significantly reduce it.

I got incredibly lucky and feel fortunate to be able to pass along these healing concepts to my patients. It has been an unexpected and rewarding phase of my career.

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

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.

6 Emotional Stages of Chronic Pain

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

Emotions are part of our life experience and influence how we cope with challenging situations such as chronic pain.

Emotional responses to pain are not “bad” or “negative” because they are a natural response to life events. For example, depression is often seen as a sign of poor health, but it can also be a way of conserving bodily energy.

Emotions are never a sign of weakness. Emotions are adaptive responses which have helped us survive as a species.

Did you know there are normal emotional stages of injury and pain? Not everyone goes through every stage and it is not a linear process. Sometimes we bounce from stage to stage in no particular order.

Let’s look at these 6 emotional stages of chronic pain:

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Denial

Denial is when we refuse to acknowledge how we feel and try to conceal the problem. When we’re in this stage our thoughts are likely: “It’s probably nothing serious” or “It will pass soon enough.”

Typical denial behaviour would be to ignore the pain, keep going as though you’re not in pain, failure to seek medical attention, and not following medical advice. Basically, you’re acting like nothing is going on in your body.

Denial is also culturally reinforced by beliefs that we should “suck it up, don’t complain and keep working.”

Fear and Anxiety

We feel fear and anxiety when the reality of something wrong hits home. You will likely be thinking quite repetitively during this stage. Typical thoughts would be: “Something is very wrong” or “What’s going to happen to me?” 

In this stage, your behaviour might be to rest and withdraw or avoid activities to protect yourself from further injury or pain. You will find yourself preoccupied with a lot of worry. You will likely begin to scan your environment and your body for threats to either, and it will be hard to commit to work or play.

Depression

Depression is the most common response to chronic pain and tends to come after fear and anxiety. Your thoughts would be normal in this stage if they were: “What’s the use?” or “Why bother with anything anymore?”

Realize none of this is enjoyable or desired; it is a normal response to chronic pain. Your behaviour would be to reduce participation in normal physical activities – even the enjoyable ones.  Social withdrawal would continue as a protective adaptation and you might experience problems with sleep.

Depression can impair your sense of self and you may grieve the loss of your identity. If you’re not an employee and parent anymore, then who are you? It is normal to withdraw in depression when your world shrinks in size.

Anger

Another emotional stage, and one I am quite familiar with, is anger. This defensive behaviour is the “fight” in the fight-flight-freeze response. It energizes you to resist the problems that come with chronic pain, and to ward off danger and restore safety. Normal angry thoughts about your pain would be: “It’s not fair” or “Why me?”

Behaviours in this stage can sometimes be troublesome, as they may become impulsive (acting or speaking quickly without thinking it through) or compulsive (repetitive behaviour not serving a purpose). You may overreact to smaller things and blow up at others. You might also engage in risky behaviour such as abusing alcohol or other substances to try to numb yourself.

The key is to express your anger in a healthy manner and hopefully transform it into affirmative action.  This is where you find the message in your anger and put it to work for you. I put my anger to work for me as I advocate for chronic pain patients on a regular basis.

Shame

Shame is not to be confused with guilt. Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad” while shame says, “I am bad.” Shame comes from how we see ourselves as damaged goods and can lead to feelings of self-loathing and disgust. You might think: “I’m worthless” or “I’m a complete failure.”

As a therapist, I find this to be a particularly powerful and difficult stage for clients, as shame often takes up all the space in the room. Behaviours in this stage would be continued social withdrawal, a decrease in assertiveness and self-confidence, and possibly self-destructive behaviours such as abusing alcohol or drugs.

Acceptance

The final emotional stage of coping with chronic pain is acceptance. Some patients reach this stage fairly quickly and others never reach it.

Let me be crystal clear about acceptance: It does not mean that you want this pain or that you like this pain and gladly accept it. Absolutely not. What it does mean is that you accept yourself without judgment, you live in the present moment, and you accept what is. Your thoughts will be along these lines: “This is not my fault” or “I can and will cope with this.”

Behaviours begin to change in this stage. You will be less focused on the past and have more realistic expectations of yourself. You will maintain appropriate levels of physical activity, use medications appropriately, reduce your emotional stress, and begin to experience feelings of peace rather than constantly beating yourself up.

Acceptance does not mean that you no longer feel any of the other emotions.  You may still experience feelings of denial, fear and anxiety, depression, anger and shame, but they will be less often and with less intensity.

Acceptance -- which includes hefty doses of self-compassion -- does not cure anyone’s physical pain, but it does facilitate better coping and reduced emotional stress. You do not accept pain because you want it or like it, but because it is here, you have it, and you respond to it in a kinder, gentler way.

The purpose of acceptance is to engage in activities that you feel have value. Within this purpose, acceptance becomes relevant and necessary. As a consequence, there is often less time spent struggling against and trying to avoid pain -- time freed up to engage in more valued pursuits.

It may take some time and support to acquire this tool, but once you have, it’s yours for life. Double entendre fully intended.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit 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.