On not noticing the pain

The point of pain is to make you aware that something is wrong with your body. At least, that’s supposed to be how it works. Unfortunately, for some of us that system is malfunctioning.

In theory, you feel pain, you pay attention to it, you try to fix the source of it. But when your pain is constant, that’s not how it works.

My pain started more than 22 years ago. I’d have it for days, weeks, or months at a time. It would randomly go away, only to return at some unexpected time. Then about 19 years ago, it changed: it got worse and it became a 24/7 presence in my life.

Most people would expect me to have been thinking about my pain every day then and now. And in a way I did and do, but not in a focused or conscious way.

After all these years, I know what movements and actions will trigger pain and I avoid those. If I absolutely had to pick up something heavy or move in certain ways, I literally wouldn’t know how to do those things now. It’s been so many years, that I don’t remember how. Like riding a bike. I stopped riding a bike due to the pain and I’m pretty sure that if I tried now, despite the well-known saying, I’d fall over (at least in part because my center of gravity has shifted quite a bit since I was 16.) So I suppose that in avoiding those triggering actions the pain is on my mind, but only in the background.

These days, I only pay attention to the pain in two situations:

  1. When it spikes. I can’t ignore those sudden increases.
  2. When it’s consistently severe. I can ignore pain up to a 6 on my pain scale (with a range of 1-10) fairly well, and a 7 if I need to, but above that I can’t ignore it. When it hits 8.5 I start considering taking pain meds, even though they have side effects that I hate.

So what about the rest of the time? Well, I notice it sometimes, but it doesn’t take up a lot of room in my brain. Other times I forget that I’m even in pain. When the doctor asks if I’m in pain, I sometimes have to stop and take inventory of my body. Because otherwise I’m not sure. Other times I’m in a lot of pain and it’s obvious even to me.

I’m not saying it’s easy to ignore pain or even that it’s natural. For me, it was a matter of self-preservation. When I was 17 I reached a point of exhaustion and I just had to learn to sleep through the pain. There was no other way to function. So first I began to sleep through the pain, then I pushed it farther and farther back in my mind as it became my new normal. And there were other things on my mind. I was applying to colleges, going out with friends, dating for the first time, fighting with my sister, thinking my parents were unfair (hey, give me a break, I was a teenager!) and spending many hours on homework. I had, you know, a life.

In other words, there was more to my life than just the pain.

Even now, when my life is more taken up by my health problems than it was in those early days and I can’t work at a job, I have non-health things going on, too. I date a bit, I spend time with friends, I volunteer. And, yes, I take care of my health constantly. In an odd way, that’s also a distraction from the pain.

So now, like then, sometimes I’m too busy to think about the pain. Sure, a 5 on the pain scale would upset most people. And I admit, if I suddenly feel a 5 in a new place, I can’t ignore it. But if I feel a 5 in an area where I’ve had daily pain for years then sure, it might not get my full attention. A part of my brain picks up on the pain signals, decides it’s not worth addressing, and relegates it to the back row of my attention theater.

A little while ago, in the middle of typing an earlier paragraph, the pain got bad enough that I could no longer sit up in a chair. I noticed the pain. I had been ignoring it for most of the last week and my body finally gave me some clues that if I kept ignoring it, I’d be paying a steep price later. And that’s why I’m now typing to you from my couch. But while I was busy continuing this post, I forgot about the pain completely. I wasn’t aware that I was even in any pain at all. Now that I think about it, yes, it’s still there. It’s significantly better than it was when I was in the chair. No doubt that it’s better. But it’s there. And if I wasn’t so used to it I’d probably be worried that something was wrong with my body.

But I know better than that. And that’s why I’ll keep going about my day, doing as much as I can so I can cross things off my “to do” list for the day, and only noticing the pain if it gets worse again. Until then, it won’t even cross my mind.

And if it does, I’ll shove it away.

6 Responses to On not noticing the pain

  1. I can’t imagine what you go through. Pain of 3 on a 1-10 scale makes me run for Tylenol.

  2. Lorna says:

    I think you’re right. I ignore pain, sometimes don’t notice it. Then something might spasm and it reminds me!
    Hugs xx

  3. Julie Ryan says:

    I am right there with you. I think it’s something that most people can’t imagine that we can ignore it after a while. Your post was part of the inspiration for my post today – http://countingmyspoons.com/2015/03/chronic-pain-scale/

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