Last night’s Counseling & Physiology class covered the topic of chronic pain. There are a number of syndromes and disorders that cluster around pain as the presenting problem: Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, back pain, etc. Depending on which research study you read, some 9-17% of the population struggles with some form of chronic pain.
While these various forms of pain are quite different, there are some commonalities. Chronic and diffuse pain sufferers frequently experience some form of inflammation, fatigue, sleep disruption, negative mood, and poor memory (its hard to pay attention to new information when you are weighed down by pain). We don’t really know what causes what but we do know that these symptoms form a vicious cycle. If you don’t get restorative sleep, you experience more fatigue, you are more prone to negative thought patterns, your pain levels go up, memory goes down…and thus you don’t sleep well the next night, and so on. Researchers describe this vicious cycle in terms of “allostatic load”–the deleterious effects of chronic stress hormones without restorative sleep.
Because of the diffuse nature of pain (vs. focal) and the lack of obvious objective evidence of that pain (a big red spot, a swollen limb, etc.), chronic pain sufferers and their families struggle to understand whether or not the pain is real and what they are truly capable of doing. How do you measure pain levels? It’s pretty subjective! Thus, it encourages more “I should be able to…” thinking in all parties. Those not suffering chronic pain do more damage by implying that the person is just looking for attention, is just being lazy. Those suffering pain who either deny the pain and try to do too much or refuse to engage the world and withdraw from it do damage to themselves–real physical damage.
As with all physiological problems, one’s mood, one’s perceptions, one’s focus, one’s stress levels impact severity of the problem. While chronic pain is not just in one’s head, how one responds to chronic pain may help alleviate or elevate the pain sensations. Ironically, many pain sufferers resist counseling because they fear that others will believe that their symptoms are all in their head. Those who refuse to acknowledge the psychological factors in pain sensation and management miss out on important means to cope with the pain and to lower pain perceptions.
Chronic pain sufferers must accept the need to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate more rest. They must fight to get the best restorative sleep possible. These are probably their primary practical responses–even above medical treatments (and I’m not knocking medical treatments nor saying that just getting sleep will solve the problem).
One of the biggest challenges for pain sufferers is the matter of hope and faith. When we suffer problems, we often hope they will go away. And when they do not, or only get marginally better, it is easy to slide into despair. Despair usually is the result of things not going the way we hoped or expected they would. Part of dealing with chronic pain is grieving what is lost in order to accept–even enjoy–what strength and health we do have. Without hope, we lose what self-efficacy we once had, thus not doing the basic care-taking activities within our grasp. Interestingly, one of the clearest signs of this struggle is the massive dropouts in pain management research. Frequently, dropouts number about 50% in these studies. This means that before a study gets too far along many are dropping out because they assume the new treatment isn’t going work.
Faith is not that things will go my way right now but that God is in control, cares/protects me, and is working for my ultimate redemption–even when the opposite seems to be true. Faith is acting in a manner consistent with said assumptions even while grieving over real losses. Such faith enables us to be mindful of our thoughts so that we do not practice into beliefs counter to what we have come to know as true.
The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well (asks God for relief, stays in community with others, seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and yet still willing to explore and confront hidden sin in self) begins to see that in the midst of the pain, God is there and providing momentary help. Such a person need not act as if the pain were nothing but will look for and rejoice in 5% improvement, 10% more comfort, etc, rather than demanding complete healing as the determinant as to whether God is present with them in their distress.