Water Cooler November 2016: Chronic pain – is it real?


by Melany Hallam

Question: Do you feel limited in the kind of work you can do due to your health? Answers: Very limited / somewhat limited / not limited

One of my best friends (let’s call her “Debbie”) – a talented teacher – is no longer able to work because of chronic pain and anxiety.

For as long as I’ve known her (about 30 years), Debbie has been an anxious person. Periodically, life or work would become too much for her and she’d crash, spending a day or two in bed unable to get up due to fatigue or physical pain. She’d cancel our get-togethers at the last minute saying she was just “too tired”, she’d call in sick to work saying that the stress had become too much for her. As far as I could tell, she wasn’t experiencing anything more than normal, everyday events. So why was she having trouble coping?

In some ways I can relate to this – who hasn’t felt like life is too much sometimes? But I’ve always been a person who forces herself to carry on no matter what happens, so I find myself wondering if all this pain and fatigue are real or imagined. You may be thinking the same thing, but before you judge, let me tell you a bit more about Debbie’s situation.

About 10 or 12 years ago, Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer, went through surgery and treatment and a very long and painful road to remission. She went through this alone – she didn’t have a partner at the time. Family and friends had to be scheduled in to drive her to chemo, she gave herself injections in the stomach as part of her treatment, she drove herself to the hospital when she spiked a fever in the middle of the night. Through all this, she kept her sense of humour and fascination with life and all its craziness. Debbie is an extremely strong person.

For many years following remission, she tried going back to work part-time on a return to work plan, but each time she tried she became overwhelmed with anxiety and pain throughout her body. She tried everything she could think of to get better: meditation and exercise, therapy sessions, changes in diet and a whole range of prescription medications. Nothing has worked for her. Some days, Debbie is completely laid flat by pain – it covers her whole face, goes down her back – she can’t move, talk or eat.

This year, Debbie found out that she’s “florid” celiac, meaning that she’s severely allergic to anything with wheat/gluten in it. Gluten actually destroys the lining in her small intestines, can cause extreme fatigue and all kinds of other complications. She has since also been diagnosed with a type of bi-polar disorder and, most recently, with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

All of these diagnoses have come as a sort of relief to Debbie as she can now look back at the difficulties she’s had in her life and see that there’s an explanation for what she’s experienced. She has come to accept that she’ll never be able to work again due to her health. At the same time, it’s a huge blow to someone who has always done her best to fight her way back from each obstacle she’s encountered. I know that at some point she’s going to break down and mourn that strong person she always believed herself to be. To me, she is still that person and I know that she’ll find a way to deal with this, as she has with everything else that has happened in her life.

Debbie’s experience with chronic pain isn’t that uncommon. According to research from the Canadian Pain Coalition:

  • 17% to 31% of the general community report chronic pain
  • People in pain miss work, spend time in hospital and visit the doctor often
  • Pain is almost unmentioned in medical training
  • There is a severe shortage of acute pain services and pain clinics in hospital settings
  • In-hospital patients with pain from non-surgical conditions are less likely to have their pain taken seriously enough to be treated
  • Outpatients who report pain of chronic duration to health care professionals are often dismissed, or are accused of malingering
  • There is a large gap between what is known and what is practiced in the treatment of all kinds of pain
  • about 15% of pain conditions do not respond to any current therapies

Nov. 6 to 12 is National Pain Awareness Week. If you or someone you love is experiencing pain that affects their ability to live and work normally, here’s a chance to learn more and find out how you can help yourself or others.

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