Five Tips to Stay Active with Chronic Pain

fibromyalgia workout
Chronic pain sucks.

Chronic pain can keep even the most dedicated exercisers from their daily workout. Over the past year, the pain in my back and right hip was so debilitating that I couldn’t get comfortable anywhere. I gave up running (but recently made a comeback!) and weightlifting on top of everything else I’ve given up to fibromyalgia and dystonia over the years. But almost every day, I made a point to get myself out of the house to walk, with the exception of a few days when muscles spasms kept me locked in a fetal ball in the bedroom. My trial and error workouts through fifteen months of low back/hip pain helped me come up with some advice for people who also deal with chronic pain but still want to exercise.

Get Outside

Unless weather-prohibitive, getting outside is often the first step to activity. Chronic pain is depressing and disheartening and can feel like it steals your soul. Stepping or wheeling outside to feel fresh air and hear bird sing is instantly uplifting. Once you’re outside, you’re more likely to at least walk/wheel around the block.

Find Something That Works For You

Maybe you’re a lifelong athlete like me, and “exercise” means soccer, running, or other high-intensity sports. Recognizing that your body no longer cooperates with your mind’s desires is no easy pill to swallow. Find something that works for you. Swimming and water aerobics are usually great workouts for people with chronic pain issues because there’s little impact on the body. While it doesn’t carry the same adrenaline rush of running fast down a hill, walking around your neighborhood can be mentally cleansing and physically uplifting. Just because you can’t do what you used to do doesn’t mean there isn’t something out there that will work for you.

Mind Your Medications

I’ve experienced medication side effects that were worse than the original problem I suffered. Even medications that you might have taken for years can suddenly start reacting differently in your body. Take a few days to list all the medications you take, the time(s) of day you take them, and how they effect your mind and body. You might find that something either doesn’t work for you at all anymore and you need to call your doctor, or that a certain prescription makes you feel exhausted. Once you’re more aware of what you’re taking and what it’s doing to you, it can be easier to decide on a time of day that’s best for activity.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

Keep trying. Chronic pain is a nasty demon, but some days you might be capable of things that other days just won’t work. I’ve started running again despite feeling for a year that I’d never be able to run a step. I stuck to a strict stretching routine every night, and eventually the flexibility gained in my legs helped me return to running about 20 minutes every other day. That’s nothing compared to the 2+ hours per day I used to run, but it’s empowering to be back in action. I was afraid to hurt myself and took my return very slowly and carefully and definitely got bad results the first few times I tried. But, eventually, I ran for 5 minutes and felt pretty good, then used that short run as a steppingstone.

Stretch

Flexibility is so important for everybody, but especially for chronic pain patients. Range of motion in joints can be severely limited by tight muscles, and the less you move around, the tighter those muscles become. Many medical conditions contribute to severe muscle spasms (I have cervical dystonia) that can’t be undone, but for the most part, at least some area of your body is probably accessible to stretch. I found that even on my worst days, stretching my hamstrings helped relieve low back pain. You don’t have to do anything drastic—just gentle stretching will help. A physical therapist can be a great resource to set you on a safe path to a more flexible body.

Good luck to you! Chronic pain is awful, but reclaiming your life and moving your body can do worlds of good.

Of course, like all things health-related, ask your healthcare professional before undertaking anything out of the ordinary. Everybody’s medical conditions are different and should be respected as such. Exercise is great medicine, but make sure you get cleared to participate first!

Fibromyalgia Sucks!

fibromyalgia sucksFibromyalgia sucks. It really does. I decided to start using Mondays as an opportunity to create some smiles, because we all need humor whether we have chronic illnesses or not.

Otis, my sweet beagle (or at least he’s mostly beagle) always helps me feel better no matter what’s wrong. He’s been my loving companion for 9 ½ years and is the gentlest little guy I know. In the spirit of sharing, I hope this picture makes your day better!

Fibromyalgia sucks. Dogs rule. Have a great day, friends!

Creative Visualization

fibromyalgia creative visualization
Think it, then do it.

Has anyone tried creative visualization? As best as I understand it, focusing on something that you want is supposed to help make it happen. It’s a lot like envisioning how you want your life to be, focusing on that vision, and making it happen.

My visualization of my life has always included sports and outdoor activities. Fibromyalgia has tried very hard to take that vision away. Lately, in part thanks to awesome words from a reader (thanks Stephanie AC), I’m trying creative visualization for the first time. Rather than just imagining something and feeling defeated because it can’t happen, I’m going to imagine it as an attainable reality.

My (hopefully) attainable reality is returning to running. I don’t even have to close my eyes to imagine what it will be like to return to the freedom of moving quickly on my own two feet. Earlier today I drove over the bayou bridge near my house and could almost feel what it would be like to run across that bridge like I did for years. I imagined the salty smell, the hard wind, and the sound of seagulls. I imagined the childlike joy of running so fast down the hill before the bridge that it would feel like flying.

I’m shifting those visions that I’ve always had into energy toward reality rather than disappointment. We’re having almost spring-like weather in northwest Florida right now, and I would love—no, I WILL love to go outside and run in the sun.

Reclaiming Life at What Price?

running with fibromyalgia
It was raining, but it was a great day to run.

I’m curious what you do when you want to do something so bad but you know it’s potentially disastrous for your health. Bottom line—with every fiber of my being I want to return to running, but I’m scared to death of the post-run nighttime pain that made me howl like a wounded animal the last time I ran.

When I see people running, I feel a mixture of hope and bitterness and excitement and disappointment and jealousy. I’m happy for them that they get to experience the joy and challenge of running, but I desperately want to return to one of the last things I had to give up. Soccer is unrealistic. Tennis is probably unrealistic, too. Same with rollerblading. But running was my holdout, the final thing I kept for myself for peace, clarity, adventure, and release.

My internal debate gets more heated every day. I’m walking several miles (and sometimes as many as 5 hours) daily, so it seems like running a few minutes in the midst of all that walking wouldn’t be a big deal. But every time I almost embrace freedom and take off, I think about the way my hips and back felt the night after the last time I ran, and I keep walking instead.

Is there anything you’ve given up for fibromyalgia that you’ve reclaimed? If so, did it come with a price, and is the price worth it?

A Happy Surprise and New Exercises

I got a happy surprise with the results of my lumbar MRI—only one slight, diffuse disc protrusion at L4/L5. Everything else looked fine! After suffering through debilitating back and hip pain for 13 months, I feared the worst. I knew my neck was bad, but I still didn’t expect the MRI to show what it did several years ago—three herniated discs. Because of my neck and the severity of my back pain, I tried to prepare for the worst with the lumbar MRI results. It’s hard to prepare for bad news when it I already feel like so much of my life is either stolen or diminished because of health issues, but I readied myself for one more piece of bad news. Instead, light!

There’s still no good reason for my back and hip to be so messed up. Idiopathic muscle spasms—possibly related to the cervical dystonia diagnosis I got a few years ago?—started torturing me seemingly out of nowhere last year. Sometimes I truly wonder if a fibromyalgia diagnosis is just a doctor’s way of saying she doesn’t really know what the hell is really going on.

In the face of misery—misery that is compounded by pain and spinal dysfunction keeping me from doing the vigorous exercise that makes me happy—I’ve discovered a random piece of exciting news. I can climb stairs without much pain. Lots of stairs. I walked up nine stories a few days ago and felt great. Today, I walked up outdoor amphitheater stairs ten times. Walking down sucks, and if it weren’t for having to walk down, I think I’d walk up a lot more. The building where I went up nine stories has an elevator, but I have major death trap phobia about elevators so it’s not practical for me to ride down. Maybe I’ll reach a point where I either get over the elevator fear or can better tolerate walking down, but until something changes, I like the outdoor stairs. I can walk up them and then walk down a grassy hill to start over.

I started another new adventure this week. I’m now working out with a trainer at the 24-hour gym where I hold a membership. I’ve already found that I haven’t been giving good trainers enough credit. This guy knows what he’s doing and is putting forth a lot of effort to help me correct the ridiculous anterior pelvic tilt that worsens my back pain. I have a second appointment with him tomorrow, and while I prefer independent exercise, I’m pretty excited about having a professional ensure I’m not making myself worse.

Meanwhile, the pain persists. I finally agreed to a round of bloodwork, which is something I’ve avoided for a couple of years now. I got very tired of getting the same old results—low white cell count and low red cell count and anemia—without anybody nailing down a cause. It just didn’t feel worthwhile to open a vein anymore, but I’m ready to look for answers again. I’ve also agreed to a few non-invasive tests, but have yet to decide if I’ll actually go through with them. Sometimes the worst thing about having health problems is the time it takes away from the good parts of life. But I know how lucky I am to live the life I lead, so I’ll just complain a little bit then get on with things.

Ten Things I Did Before Fibromyalgia

10. I played soccer—a lot of soccer. It didn’t even seem like a big deal when I’d take off my cleats after a game and find a bloody sock. Pain was temporary before fibromyalgia.

9. I ran around mountains, up mountains, and once down a mountain.

8. I tried new sports, like rollerblading, just for fun. There was no fear of the repercussions of taking a stiff, broken body through a new routine.

7. I took ibuprofen for pain and it actually worked.

6. I sat in a chair and read books for hours without my back hurting.

5. I ate ice cream and brownies and cookies and knew nothing about total-body inflammation.

4. I planned my days around choices rather than obligations—choices like when to go to the gym rather than obligations like having to see the chiropractor just so I can stand to be alive.

3. I travelled, and didn’t have to plan trips around muscle spasms and pain. I carried fun stuff in my luggage rather than needing a carload of pain-relieving props (Back Buddy, camping mattress in case the hotel bed is too soft, cervical pillow, Tiger Balm, etc.).

2. I went to sleep like a normal person. No handfuls of herbal supplements, no piles of pillows to ease back pain, no special cervical pillow. I would just lie down and pull up the covers.

1. I was free without realizing it—free to live as boldly as I wished and without pain—free to explore, to take risks, and to relax.

Food, Pain, and Guilt

“The psychology of guilt and illness—consuming sugar increases inflammation, but constant denial doesn’t feel good, either.” I wrote that note to myself during my lunch break at work last week. I’d been craving a Milky Way bar for three weeks without giving in to temptation. As the forth week loomed, I caved and bought the last Milky Way in the vending machine (which I took as a sign from the food gods, that it was there just for me).

I never eat sugar except the kind that naturally occurs in whole foods. I love sweet foods, but because of fibromyalgia, quite some time ago I committed to avoiding processed sugar. Why would I contribute to added pain and inflammation in my body? That’s a healthy, responsible mindset, but sometimes the guilt that comes with it is daunting.

It’s hard to watch my friends and family eat ice cream, cake, and brownies like it’s no big deal. I don’t begrudge them, but I’m jealous. My hardline thinking about food keeps me as healthy as possible in the face of chronic pain, but it can also imprison me with guilt. If I choose to live by normal social standards and have occasional birthday cake, I immediately feel at fault for the pain in my body.

My reasoning broke down on Thursday. Three weeks of wanting a Milky Way—and I have no idea why I specifically wanted that candy bar—and my back was killing me whether I ate one or not. I realized that my fit, healthy friends indulge quite often and don’t notice adverse side effects, and that it’s unreasonable for me to live in American society and completely forgo all culinary treats.

With way too much on my mind, I took the walk of shame to the vending machine. As I pushed my quarters into the coin slot, I remembered riding my bike to Tom Thumb as a kid and gorging on candy and soda. It was normal life then to eat candy, and I want a normal life again.

The Milky Way was better than I’d imagined. A coworker convinced me to avoid looking at the list of ingredients and just enjoy it. Every bite was delicious, and I wished it were king size.

Every time guilt crept up—I’m eating candy and my back hurts, therefore it’s my fault that my back hurts—I reminded myself that my back was hurting way before the Milky Way fantasy even crossed my mind. Enjoying occasional unhealthy snacks should not bring such guilt, and I know that. But it’s a daily struggle to not feel responsible for the pain, like if I had just eaten a head of broccoli instead of a candy bar, I’d feel better.

But in truth, I’ve lived in complete abstinence from sugar, and while it’s helped me overall, it wasn’t a cure. Just like sugar abstinence isn’t a cure, occasional sugar indulgence isn’t a cause of chronic pain. But I still feel guilty, and I won’t touch sugar again for a very long time.

Merry Christmas

Christmas is a time of reflection for me. I have to be careful not to get caught up in self-pity or dwell on the things I can’t do. Chronic pain is a huge downer, but I do believe that fighting the pain is important. The day that I give in to it is the day I drop into my grave.

On Christmas, the only present that I want is to be free from fibromyalgia. Since that’s about as likely as world peace, I also asked for a new running vest so that I can run through (not away from!) the pain. Merry Christmas, and may you all find peace and painlessness.

Fibromyalgia and Frustration

I’m not sure where rock-bottom is. I keep finding it, but then I find it again and realize I never actually found it before. I hate having fibromyalgia. I’m not a depressed person, but the constant pain and debilitation is making me feel extremely depressed. Working out is how I deal with stress. When I’m too sick with fibromyalgia symptoms to work out, I feel hopeless.

Imprisoned by Pain and Spasms

I’m so, so ready to have a more normal, active life. My lower back has been tied up in spasms for almost two weeks, and every time they seem to abate, they quickly return with more force. Sometime in the midst of the back spasms, I got sick with cold/flu-like crap, and the coughing has made my lower back feel like it might explode. I’ve been on oral steroids for four days and have had tons of cough syrup, ibuprofen, and chiropractic treatments. I was finally able to walk a few blocks very slowly last night after barely making it out of bed for days. I hate fibromyalgia.

After exhausting what I consider the final physical cure frontier—changing to a vegan diet—I feel stuck in a C-list movie about how much the body can make life suck. I’m still a big advocate for veganism. Despite living in hell at this moment with excruciating back spasms and flu-like symptoms, the vegan diet’s benefits are still obvious. My skin looks better than it has in years. My sweat doesn’t stink much when I exercise (although I haven’t exercised in awhile). I have regular bathroom habits. My neck has improved, and I’m sleeping regularly. From a nutritional standpoint, I feel like a million dollars.

I’m not sure what the end game is with fibromyalgia. No soccer? Dammit, but ok. No tennis, another dammit, but ok. But the modifications and concessions keep coming, and it feels like I’m down to almost nothing that I actually can do.

Since my low back went to hell, I’ve found my true breaking point. I thought I’d found it before, but I guess that’s the thing about fibromyalgia—it breaks you down so many times that it’s hard to tell when you really hit bottom.