by Christine Sine
Pain has formed a significant part of the tapestry of my life over this last year. A cracked tooth that has gone undiagnosed for 40 years flared into prominence. My previously episodic bouts of pain became a nightly struggle to sleep through the throbbing in my face. Unfortunately the diagnosis has not meant that the pain has gone away. The chronic inflammation has caused damage to my trigeminal nerve and it is possible that the pain, though alleviated with medications, will never go away.
I hate pain, and when it is as persistent as this I am inclined to regard it with disfavour not awe. However as I sat and contemplated my question “have you had your dose of awe and wonder today?” it was my pain that came to mind.
Pain Tells Us there is Something Wrong
I hate pain but I am glad it exists. Thank God for pain! says Paul Brand in his important book The Gift Nobody Wants. Dr Brand started working with leprosy patients in India after WWII and spent most of his life treating people who felt no pain. By the time he saw them some had lost digits, limbs, noses. They suffered from chronic infections and ulcers, often unaware that a simple cut had become infected.
At the other end of the spectrum are those with chronic pain, the legacy of phantom limbs that refuse to be silenced or, as in my case the legacy of chronic inflammation that has never been recognized.
Attitudes to Pain
Paul Brand points out the three attitudes to pain that he has observed over his life
- The buoyant acceptance of pain of those that suffer gladly for a cause – like Jesus who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross”
- The bearing of pain with dignity and calm acceptance as he saw in the lepers he treated.
- The avoidance of pain at all costs – as he saw when he came to practice in the U.S. where the slogan “I haven’t got time for pain” has led to the proliferation of an industry that in 2011 cost us between $560 billion and $635 billion a year, as well as countless lives lost to opioid addiction.
Ironically when we ignore the pain signals our body gives us, eventually we pay the price. We all know the sports professionals who have ended up with joint, and spinal surgeries because they ignored their pain but they are not alone. I wonder how many joint and back surgeries would not be necessary if we didn’t reach quite so quickly for the ibuprofen bottle.
Now I am not suggesting that we grit our teeth and ignore our pain or that pain doesn’t exist. I have certainly sort relief from mine many times over the years. The crack in one of my teeth that was responsible never showed up on X-rays but I persevered because I knew this pain kept telling me “something is wrong”. Dr Brand gives us good advice when he suggests that our attitude towards pain before it starts determines how suffering will impact us when it does strike.
Preparing for Pain
Dr Brand gives some wonderful advice in the face of pain that I think all of us need to take note of:
- Take out pain insurance – our bodies speak to us in the language of pain and force us to take precautions. When we take pain killers we destroy or at least mute that language. So the next time aches and pains make you want to reach for the ibuprofen or Tylenol or panadol ask yourself – what is this pain telling me about my body? What signals am I ignoring that could be important and suggest I should seek professional help?
- Cultivate gratitude and appreciation of pain’s benefits – blisters, calluses, fevers, sneezes, coughs and yes the pain in my face are all emblems of the body’s self protection. Being grateful calms and relaxes us and sometimes the pain goes away. What do I have to be grateful for? I close my eyes and think of my body – of the breath that refreshes me hundreds of times a day, of my heart propelling the O2 from that breath throughout my body thousands of times a day, of my jaw – so beautifully created with strong bones and teeth and muscles and the fine tendrils of nerves – extraordinary cells these neurons that give me the ability to feel pain are. A single cell can be several feet long. If God crafted them in unique ad awe inspiring way, surely it is for a purpose. What else am I grateful for? I am grateful for the pain which over the years has told me “something is wrong” even though we could not find what it was. So much to be grateful for. I am indeed fearfully and wonderfully made, my pain tells me so.
- Take responsibility for my health and for the signals my body sends me. Last week I had a “woe is me day” a little bit of a pity party that could easily have become a way of life. The more I concentrate on the good things in my life and take time to savour its joys and wonderment, the more pain I can cope with. More than that I need to listen to my pain. Is there a pattern to it? How do relationships, meals, sleeping, drinking effect it? Maybe this pain can tell me other things that need to be repaired or focused on.
- Activity matters. All our joints need to move both regularly and completely. In Western society hip replacements are common but not in Indian society partly because we sit in chairs and cross-legged on the ground.
- Spiritual disciplines benefit. Contemplative practices help us relax and teach us self mastery replacing tense muscles and emotions with peace and calm. Many deeply contemplative people – Buddhist, Hindi and Christian experience little if any pain when contemplating.
- Surround yourself with a loving community. When we have family and friends to depend on for support and comfort even when we suffer our reduction in fear and loneliness has a huge impact on our pain perception.
Managing Our Pain
Sooner or later all of us suffer from pain and probably the greatest dread all of us have is that we will end our days in the chronic pain of cancer alone and uncared for. Fortunately hospice care has alleviated much of that concern but there are other ways we can prepare.
Our attitudes and responses in the past will determine how well we cope now and in the future.
- Distract don’t deaden. It is amazing how much higher our pain threshold becomes when we are doing something we enjoy. When I don’t sleep at night I can toss and turn, take a pain pill or get up and do something productive. Reading helps me relax and often means I am then able to sleep without painkillers.
- Don’t be afraid to tell people you hurt. For a long time no one knew I was in pain. I just put up with it. After the initial investigations showed nothing I tended to feel ashamed of my pain. I expected that people would tell me just to take painkillers. Now (as this post shows) I am not afraid to admit to my pain. Now I know I am not alone. People take me and my pain seriously. That in itself helps me relax, let go my fears and develop a sensible approach to my problem.
- Prepare yourself for a worst case scenario. My neighbour recently confided that the hardest thing about her husband’s death was that they never discussed it. What kind of painkillers would he take? What if he didn’t remain lucid until the end? Who did he want present when he faced death and was in pain? Many of us suffer from these feelings not just with facing death but with any severe pain. “Will I still control my life?” is the often unspoken fear behind our treatment of pain.
- Managing pain is more than painkillers. I love that we now often talk about pain management rather than pain relief. It has a healthier and more holistic view that implies we are part of a team dealing with our pain problem. If you suffer from chronic pain or have a friend in pain who is part of your pain management team? How do you relate to them? How can you help your fried manage their pain?
What is Your Response?
You may not be in pain at the moment but all of us have the opportunity to rethink the way we view pain and the impact it could have on our bodies in the future.
What is your current attitude towards pain? How does that impact your treatment of your own pain and your response to the pain of friends?
What could you do to enhance your sense of awe at the ways that God has crafted your body and its response to pain?
What changes could you make to your treatment of pain in the future?
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