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!

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?

Top Five Ways to Stay Healthy

I take Counter Attack daily.
I take Counter Attack daily.

5. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. This seems like a no-brainer, but I stayed well through the entire fall season when a lot of people were sick. I think a lot of my wellness had to do with washing my hands with warm water and soap more often than I wanted to—especially after grocery shopping, checking the mail, and at work.

4. Sleep. Having fibromyalgia or any kind of chronic pain can make sleep very difficult, but do what you can to get as many hours as possible. I’ve taken to sleeping on my camping mattress on the floor with my legs on three pillows. I look ridiculous, but my back hurts less and I’m able to rest.

 

3. Try herbal supplements and teas. I like spirulina and Counter Attack. They taste bad and require a quick swallow and lots of water, but they make me feel energized. I also like Throat Coat tea. Of course, make sure your healthcare provider clears you to take supplements before you try them.

2. Exercise outdoors. Even if I only go for a short walk in the woods, I immediately feel better physically and mentally. The clean air and peacefulness helps me connect to the planet, and the movement helps with my stiff joints. I feel sick in general if I don’t get time outdoors.

1. Avoid processed foods—especially sugar. There are lots of studies that show the negative effects of processed sugar. Yes, it tastes good, but feeling like crap and/or getting very ill isn’t worth the momentary blissful taste. Fresh blueberries will taste super sweet after you get used to abstaining from processed sugar, so go for fruit if you need something sugary. As a side note, I ate some candy and cookies as the new year approached, and caught a very bad cold within a few days. Coincidence? Maybe, but I’d been healthy for 14 months before, and those were 14 processed-sugar-free months.

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.

Piroxicam and Tizanidine

piroxicam
Piroxicam 20mg

After ditching Lyrica, I resolved to do whatever I could to stay off prescription drugs. Very rarely, I took one Skelaxin for muscle spasms. The side effects weren’t worth it most of the time, but sometimes I would be so bad off that I had to take one. As the one-year anniversary of my back and hip issues neared, I couldn’t take the daily pain and stiffness anymore. I made an appointment with the doctor who’s worked on my neck in the past. He’s smart, isn’t afraid of the latest medical technology, and perhaps most importantly, he actually spends time with his patients and listens like a human rather than a hurried robot. Unfortunately, those attributes make it very hard to get an appointment, and I waited two months despite being an established patient.

When I did finally see him, he examined my back and hip and told me a few things I already know, like I have tight muscles and joint laxity. He decided to order a lumbar MRI, which wasn’t a surprise. He also talked me into filling a couple of prescriptions because he was very worried about my high pain levels and lack of sleep. I left his office with two scripts I’d never heard of before—Piroxicam and Tizanidine.

I thought I might not fill the drugs, but pain wore me down and I headed to the pharmacy. I figured I could try them once or twice and get off them quickly if they sucked. Piroxicam is an NSAID pain reliever and Tizanidine is a short-acting muscle relaxer. I was given instructions to take the Piroxicam once per day and the Tizanidine up to three times per day. I took one of each the first night, and was asleep within an hour.

Going to sleep quickly is a big deal with a body wracked by chronic pain. Hell, going to sleep at all is monumental. When I woke up the next morning, I didn’t feel hung over at all—I just felt better. I felt genuinely rested, unlike the crappy, forced sleep that comes from some drugs.

Tizanidine 4mg
Tizanidine 4mg

For several days, I took one Piroxicam in the evening and one Tizanidine before bed, and I felt great. I hiked 21 miles one weekend, and began to feel hopeful about a mostly pain-free back, neck, and hip. As always, I follow a healthy diet and use my hot tub as much as three times per day. The good food, warm water, and new prescriptions gave me a feeling of freedom from pain, and it was priceless.

That feeling was also short-lived. After almost a week, I noticed my back pain was getting more intense again, and my neck felt badly out of alignment. This seems to be the curse with my fibromyalgia—something new helps for a little while, but before long, I’m back to hurting.

I took a break from my nightly muscle relaxer routine and didn’t notice much of a change. However, I’m now on day two of no Piroxicam, and I feel like crap. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to start taking it again, but I’m leaning toward yes. I’m scheduled for the MRI this afternoon, and if I get stiff having to lie still for it, I’ll probably come home and pop a Piroxicam.

Have y’all tried either one of these medications? If so, what’s been your experience? I’d love to hear from you.

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.