by Alice Thomson

CW: mentions of death

Pain. Nearly all of us experience it. We all have a relationship with pain, even if we’re not aware of it. Pain allows us to avoid or reduce injury – but sometimes these signals to the brain that are supposed to help can instead go very wrong.

We are brought into this world in pain and many of us leave in the same way. Not a pleasant thought, but a true one. Many people might wish we didn’t experience pain at all, and there are some people that don’t. There are several disorders that reduce or eliminate pain. However, without the warnings pain provides these people often die at an early age. As unpleasant as pain can be, it’s an important element to our survival. It’s pain that causes us to act when we are injured; we pull our hand from the flame, seek medical advice or treatment. 

Pain is described by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) as:

“An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

There are two reasons for pain signals to be sent to the brain. One is known as acute pain, which is the result of an injury such as a sprain or even a paper cut; most acute pain can last for three to six months, remaining as a reminder to take care with the area that is damaged. In many instances, chronic pain starts with acute pain. When pain lasts for over six months, longer than the time needed to heal an injury, it’s classed as chronic. We might think that the more we experience pain the higher our tolerance becomes. This is not the case. The more our pain receptors are triggered in the brain, the more the brain expects to receive pain signals, and so simulates pain in the area it’s grown used to receiving it.

The reason I’m going into such detail is because I experience all of this.

There are three kinds of pain: musculoskeletal pain, nerve pain, and inflammatory pain. Musculoskeletal pain affects muscles, ligament, tendons and bones. It is generally caused by daily wear and tear, acute trauma or musculoskeletal diseases. This pain is often described as constant or aching. Nerve pain can be caused by damage to the nerves through injury or illness; this damage makes the nerves misfire, sending pain signals to the brain. The pain felt can be described as stabbing, shooting, or burning. Inflammatory pain is a result of the body’s white blood cells being produced to protect us from infection with foreign organisms. This is often the result of a wound, bacteria or virus, and can be described as hot or swollen. If you suffer with an autoimmune disease such as arthritis the immune system triggers a response when there are no foreign organisms to fight.

The reason I’m going into such detail is because I experience all of this. I suffer with chronic and acute pain which can be described as all of the above. Right now I have been suffering with major hip pain, which has been going on for the past few months. My hip has been subluxing on and off throughout this time causing huge amount of pain and deterioration of the muscles around my hip. It is excruciating and makes it difficult to do many tasks. Thankfully the intensity of pain changes from day to day, but the unpredictability of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome can be frustrating enough; it certainly makes planning anything extremely difficult.

For a long time I felt like I was grieving for the death of a life that was taken from me.

All this sounds very grim, and at times it is. Five years ago I would have tried my best to ignore or push away my pain. When I couldn’t manage that I would resent it and myself. For a long time I felt like I was grieving for the death of a life that was taken from me. My relationship with my pain was destructive. But like any relationship, if you try and force it into something that it’s not, you will only be met with resistance and resentment.

The overall experience of chronic pain can be thought of as a combination of primary and secondary suffering: creating the cycle of pain, causing more pain. Primary suffering is related to the unpleasant sensations that we feel in our body, such as an injury or ongoing illness. The secondary suffering is the thoughts, feelings and memories associated with the pain, like anxiety, hopelessness and exhaustion. By changing your relationship with pain and accepting it you can help to reduce or eliminate secondary suffering. By accepting your pain, I don’t mean giving in or up, I mean allowing it, letting it be. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t happen overnight – it takes a lot of time and work.

Listening to your body, planning around the pain and surrounding yourself with understanding people make a big difference.

One major change in my life that helped me grow to accept my pain was speaking with a therapist. In these sessions I was able to process my grief and come to a point where I could see the strength I had drawn from my experiences of pain. Listening to your body, planning around the pain and surrounding yourself with understanding people make a big difference. By understanding, I mean people who listen, don’t judge and are willing to be flexible. Writing for the Radical is a good example; I listen to my body, knowing when is best to write and when I won’t be productive at all. I plan around my pain by ensuring I try to finish my articles a day or so in advance. And when those things don’t work, I have a great editor (thanks again for the extension!).

My pain hasn’t changed much over the past five years, but my attitude towards it has. Instead of fighting against it, I allow it and use the lessons it teaches me. It grants me a perspective I would never have had otherwise. I wouldn’t wish the pain I experience on anyone, but I also wouldn’t change my pain. It’s part of who I am.

Featured image credit: Robert Weis

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