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Taming the stallion

By Clem | In Physiotherapy | on April 24, 2017

Taming the stallion

In my last blog I spoke about some takeaways I got from the Know Pain course I attended in Aberdeen recently. I’ve been a season ticket holder on the pain education train for a number of years now not just because it is an interesting and complex topic but also because I have a personal history with persistent pain.

Whilst spending a summer living and working in New York in 2003, I became quite ill and eventually got diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC). I have spoken about this episode in my life at length already in a past blog a few years ago. Since that diagnosis, I have been living with occasional abdominal pains that come and go. Interestingly, I quite likely would have had this pain prior to the diagnosis in that summer but would never have labelled it as a disease. The very labelling may have made me more concerned for the issue and made the pain worse. I obviously over think these things.

Anyone with either UC or Crohn’s Disease would agree that what affects one person would very likely be perfectly fine for another when it comes to flare ups of symptoms. I look back on those initial few years with incredulity at times. I was a terrible cook and was almost apathetic about the new label I had, not really wanting to find out more for fear it could make things worse. Basically giving UC the talk the hand gesture.

A few years later however, I had no other choice. In my final year of university in 2007 I spent another summer abroad, living on Vancouver Island in Canada. The pain was so unbearable at times I had to curl up in a foetal position to get any respite. I began to face up to the fact that I needed to know more about this UC diagnosis to make a better life for myself.

Over a number of years and with the help of plenty of friends and health professionals I was able to come to terms with what I was dealing with. I started with giving the pain a personality to allow myself to easily explain to friends why I was choosing to avoid certain foods, drink or activities. My UC was now called ‘Timmy’ and we had lots in common. Timmy was pretty mysterious but fine when you got to know him. He was also a temperamental prick at times. A mirror image really. I had to use this personification of my pain to explain multiple socially awkward situations.

Sorry Marie, Timmy no longer appreciates that vodka so I’ll stick with just the 7UP right now.

 

Sorry guys, Timmy isn’t very happy right now so I’m going to call it an early night”…(words may have been slightly slurred when that sentence was uttered from my mouth)

 

Over the next number of years I realised that Timmy did not like my job very much. I worked in business consulting, mostly sitting at a computer, trying to meet strict deadlines and performing tasks I had very little passion for. I would spend some days crouched over the desk with pain knocking back chocolate like a corporate Jabba the Hutt (for some reason eating chocolate would temporarily keep Timmy happy).

I worked part time in personal training and sports therapy and these jobs seemed to settle Timmy down a lot. Timmy would almost drag me like an impatient five year old to this environment after a day working as a desk jockey.

It soon became apparent that Timmy might have had a point. I wasn’t enjoying the desk jockey job, in spite of the decent wages. I felt a much more natural passion for the health and fitness industry and was encouraged by the feedback I got from customers and athletes I worked with.

Fast forward six years and Timmy turned out to have the right idea all along. I now work in an industry that both inspires me and frustrates me in equal measure but one I would comfortably work in for the rest of my life. I have not once had a sinking feeling of dread waking up in the morning. One which I was so accustomed to feeling a few years ago.

My interest in the topic of pain has been borne out of these difficult but worthwhile past experiences. I have been greatly helped along the way by people, very knowledgeable in pain like Louis Gifford, Lorimer Mosely, Kieran O’Sullivan, Peter O’Sullivan, Mike Stewart and Ian Stevens. Digesting (pun intended) all this information, I have become far closer to Timmy than ever and understand him even more. This deeper understanding has meant the two of us get on now like a house (rather than colon) on fire.

I use the story of Timmy on occasions with patients to help them understand their pain. To me, Timmy is a wild stallion, my Patronus (for all those Harry Potter fans out there). If I am looking to get places with Timmy, it would not be wise to adopt a gung ho approach and just leap on. That would easily result in a very startled and pissed off stallion accompanied by a very broken and bruised ass. A gentle, gradual, patient approach is much more likely to result in a horse that trusts what I am looking to achieve. The horse is essentially my nervous system.

In the past I have been guilty of going to the gym and fighting through the pain during a flare up. I would try and kill the the pain using heavy loaded movements and balls to walls effort. That usually resulted in both physical and psychological overload and once again, subsequent pain. It was an endless cycle of pain -> find another pain -> return to previous pain.

The other extreme of this would be to fear that wild stallion and avoid approaching the horse at all. In this scenario, I would never have realised the journey I embarked on. That might have been me just taking regular sick leave from work, refusing to acknowledge the difficulty of the disease and remaining bed, couch or even house bound.

Taming a wild stallion, requires understanding, respect and gently forming a mutual bond. Once a bond was formed, it took me exactly where I wanted to go. Timmy may be a temperamental little sh1te but I wouldn’t change him for all the tea in China.

Take Home Points

  1. Get to know the reasons why you may be experiencing pain. Research shows that when patients are actually educated on the neuroscience of pain, their pain improves.  Pain is necessary in all our lives to help us survive. Your body is experiencing pain for a reason, look for answers and take ownership of the issue.
  2. It is not wise to try and smash yourself using activity to get rid of pain whether persistent or acute. It is also just as unwise to avoid activity altogether and hope it goes away by totally resting. Find the sweet spot in the middle ground.
  3. Stress massively contributes to pain and is not just physical but psychological also. I was fortunate to find a new career that helped me greatly reduce my stress levels and become passionate in what I do on a day to day basis. Not everyone will be as lucky but prioritise your happiness. It may sound like a contradiction but becoming a bit selfish and looking after yourself creates a better version of you that family and friends will enjoy more.

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