This week I’ve had a recurrence of the back pain that plagued me for around 2 years, before I became pregnant with Etta. It has knocked me for six, because I had thought I was on top of it. I already have a lot of coping mechanisms in place for dealing with being in pain, from when I suffered with it before, but it is definitely slightly different dealing with pain while looking after a child.
I’m trying to stay positive about it, and hoping that it is just a little flare up and that it will be gone soon. In the meantime, I’m going to use it as a reason to post about all the things that helped (and are still helping!) me to cope with living in pain on a day to day basis. I also just want to add that I don’t have any professional qualifications around managing pain, I am just sharing what has helped me, though of course I hope that in sharing this it can help others who are experiencing back pain.
My back pain is mostly sciatic pain and other nerve pain. It is caused by two bulging discs, one of which is touching my spinal cord. The feeling of nerve pain is very odd, to me the sensation is a little bit like cold water running down my legs, combined with the feeling of pins being stuck in my skin. It is extremely affected by mood, stress and anxiety. If I am relaxed enough I can convert the pain to just ‘sensations’ but as soon as something stresses me out, or distracts me from relaxing, the sensations are interpreted as pain again. For this reason, a lot of the things that have helped me are based around de-stressing!
I think the relationship between pain and state of mind is extremely interesting, but I don’t want people to misinterpret this as me saying that pain is imaginary, or that it is easy to switch it off just by thinking differently. Know that anyone manages chronic pain is likely putting in immense amounts of effort keep on top of their pain, face the world and perform many of the mundane tasks that pain-free people take for granted.
When I first hurt my back, one of the first things I did was to buy a Backfriend. This is a portable seat-adapter that makes most chairs more comfortable to sit in and supports your back correctly. I still use it at my computer chair, though I think it has limited use as a portable adapter if you have really bad back pain, because having to carry something extra around with you can make things worse.
I also started going to a gentle yoga class. Yoga is one of those things that is often recommended if you’ve got a back problem – but if you are experiencing severe chronic pain, it can be hard to find a yoga class that is gentle enough not to trigger worse pain. If I went to a normal yoga class I’d probably just have had to lie on my back for most of the poses, feeling rubbish about myself. So for me a super gentle yoga class was great, because I could do all the movements and know my body was getting some benefit from moving, whilst also being able to seriously relax. Because of looking after Etta, I now don’t go to a regular class, but I do gentle, relaxation based yoga videos on YouTube like Yoga with Adriene.
Doing yoga lead me to look into mindfulness. Finding this article on using mindfulness to cope with pain was a moment of complete breakthrough for me. Tears streamed down my face while as I read it, and it completely changed the way I approached pain. Before reading it, I just felt complete desperation and a sense of ‘how on earth will I get through the day?’ every morning, and a similar sense before I completed any task or activity. Realising that I just had to cope with the now was a huge release. Funnily enough, it is the thing I am struggling most to do since my pain has returned!
YouTube is an amazing source of relaxation videos. I used a lot of progressive muscle relaxation and Yoga Nidra videos.
I found myself searching for ones with the most relaxing voices, and stumbled across something called ASMR. ASMR is basically people talking in a soothing voice about mundane things. It is really good if you find it hard to let yourself relax or meditate because of constant brain chatter. The person talking replaces the brain chatter for me. Some people experiences ‘brain tingles’ from listening to a soothing voice, and also from personal attention. You might have experienced it yourself without knowing what it was, maybe when someone was explaining something to you, or showing you how to something. I realised that I experienced it as a child, without knowing what it was during opticians appointments, while listening to science lectures and later, when watching QVC! I now use ASMR to keep me relaxed while I’m working (I have it playing in the background), to de-stress, and also to get to sleep. My favourite ASMRtist is Gentle Whispering, but there are tonnes of people making videos,and some of it is about finding someone whose voice triggers you, or who makes videos that contain your specific triggers. I have recently been wondering whether to make my own ASMR videos, as I use an ASMR type reading voice (I call it ‘my counting voice’) to help Etta go off to sleep! Do you think it is a good idea?
Once I was enough control of my life through yoga and mindfulness to think about tackling my back pain, I bought a CBT workbook, enrolled on a CBT and mindfulness based pain management programme at my local hospital and started doing graded exercise to build up my core strength. One of the things that I think has lead to my most recent setback, is a loss of core strength, as I neglected my exercise regime over Easter, and while Squidlet had chicken pox.
Because it is really important to me to maintain a positive outlook, I’m trying really hard not to beat myself up about causing a recurrence of my pain. I remember what a dark, dark place I was in when I first hurt my back, and I know that thanks to the many people who shared their coping experiences or made their yoga and ASMR videos available online, I am not in that place now, despite being in pain. I really hope that sharing some of the things that have helped me cope with pain will mean that my difficult experience results in healing and happiness for others. Please do share your experiences of coping with chronic pain and illness in the comments, and maybe you can help someone else out too.