More than 1 in 10 Americans experiences chronic pain. Women are more than twice as likely to be afflicted with chronic pain then men. Over the years I have had dozens of clients and friends, mostly women, who have dealt with chronic pain and had their problems minimized by family and medical providers. (A well-circulated 2015 article in The Atlantic goes into detail on how women’s pain is taken less seriously.) This is not to say the problem doesn’t affect men; I spoke with a close male friend today who is feeling discouraged in addressing his ongoing symptoms and dismissed by his doctors. Whatever your gender, chronic pain is often experienced as shameful and suffered in private. That’s why I am writing my most personal blog entry to date about my own journey through chronic pain.
In September of 2009 I suddenly and inexplicably started to get debilitating tension headaches. With the exception of a brief respite during pregnancy and for the first few months of breastfeeding, those headaches became part of my daily existence for more than seven years.
Seven years. Two small words, but seven years is a looong time. Especially if you don’t know when or if your pain will ever end.
I went through a lot of ice packs and darkened rooms, a lot of attempts to surreptitiously massage my neck and jaw while simultaneously focusing on clients, a lot of missed parties and work appointments, a lot of crabby afternoons. Basically, my whole late 20s and half my 30s were lived in a headache haze. On a good day I functioned through the pain, because the only alternative was not to live my life. On a bad day I collapsed into a heap of hopeless tears.
Over the excruciating years I tried everything I could think of to solve this riddle and alleviate my symptoms. I tracked my diet, my sleep patterns and my exercise routine. When the headaches came, I wrote down in calendar after calendar what the triggers might have been, how long they lasted and how intense they were. I gave up anything I identified as an occasional trigger, including naps, alcohol, dark chocolate, synthetic fragrances and birth control. I carefully monitored my caffeine intake. Like most chronic pain issues, mine was unique in how it presented in my life. But I discovered that the treatment doctors prescribed was not unique: medication to dull the symptoms as much as possible, which wasn’t very effective.
I went to neurologists, physical therapists, jaw specialists, naturopaths, Japanese and Chinese acupuncturists, reflexologists, hormone doctors, chiropractors, and craniosacral practitioners, among others I have now forgotten in the fog of daily struggle. I took opioids, triptans, beta blockers, bioidentical hormones and a supplement list that eventually grew as long as my arm. With each promising treatment I would try to find a balance between keeping an open mind and not getting my hopes up. With each treatment I would invest significant time and money only to find that my headaches didn’t change.
Well-intentioned people gave me never-ending, unsolicited advice that worked for their aunt so-and-so. The most common suggestions I received were yoga and massage (frustrating, since these were two things I had no shortage of in my life as a yoga teacher and massage therapist). I had more than one person tell me my headaches were all in my head (haha) and that I could essentially wish my pain away. I had a (male) doctor tell me I should “sit up straight the old fashioned way” instead of considering a breast reduction for my 34HH boobs. Then some jerk on Facebook (also male) told me I was an idiot for considering surgery because only ayurvedic medicine would save me.
Please ask before trying to fix someone’s chronic pain with your suggestions. Trust me, that person has spent more time thinking about how to solve their pain than you have. Usually sympathizing and leaving it at that is a kinder choice.
At the beginning of this year (2017) I was on my third expensive out-of-network neurologist who suggested I try a different kind of chiropractic using an “atlas orthogonal”. Most chiropractors don’t adjust the atlas (the bone at the very top of your cervical spine holding up your skull), since a manual manipulation of that bone can kill you. If the atlas is out of place, everything below it will continue to go out of alignment. Essentially this machine is calibrated to give a very subtle adjustment based on xrays of your spine. It feels like nothing at all. I had little to no confidence this was going to make a difference.
But it did. Half a year later I have headaches like a normal person – short lasting, usually with clear cause, responsive to over the counter medications. I have whole pain free days that feel indescribably delicious in their simplicity. I have my life back.
I tell this story not because I think that what finally helped me is a magic panacea for everyone with pain (or even with headaches), although perhaps someone out there suffering who hasn’t tried an atlas orthogonal might get some relief. My road with headaches is probably not even over.
I tell this story because it has been a meandering and isolating journey. I kept methodically trying one more thing and then just one more thing, recycling the list when I felt I’d tried it all. I dealt with each headache like it might be the last one, because to think of every tomorrow stretching out in an infinite headache was too much.
For anyone out there dealing with something like this, keep trying. You never know what strange door will bring relief. It’s tempting to catastrophize and think “this is the way it will always be,” but if there’s one sure thing in life, it’s change.