In the United States, over 100 million people are living with chronic pain. This is consistent pain that continues for weeks, months, or even years. In the type of "quick-fix" society that so many of us are accustomed to, how do you cope in a situation where you have no solution?
Just after I turned 21, I started experiencing terrible lower back pain. At first I thought I might be sore — I was an avid waterskier, worked out regularly, and had a student job full of manual labor. A month or so later, the pain was too much to handle. I checked into urgent care, received some minor tests, and was told to rest and take some Tylenol.
Fast forward several months later after multiple doctor's appointments and I found myself at another urgent care appointment. I was hoping to get a refill on my narcotics before going back to school — a dangerous coping mechanism that leads to a terrible addiction for many.
Unlike other appointments, this doctor sent me to the emergency room. I received an MRI later that day and the results were devastating. I had lumbar disk disease at multiple levels. My L4-L5 disk was bulging and my L5-S1 had a large herniation where the extruded disc fragment was compressing my right-side nerve root. In short, my back was terribly injured and I was losing function of my right leg. I had no other option besides surgery.
Back surgery isn't a great option for everyone and many would argue it has more negative consequences than positive. Today, at 24 years old, I am no longer a typical 20-something female. I live with the restrictions, restraints, and chronic pain from my back surgery for the rest of my life. At first, this is a hard concept to grasp — how can you imagine living in pain for the next 60 years of your life?
I've spent the last three years trying to cope with and understand how to live with chronic pain. Here is what I've learned so far.
1. Focus on what you can control.
When you're constantly in pain, it feels like you don't have control over anything. The pain hurts; it's all that's on your mind, and it consumes you. In times like this, I focus on what I can control — my attitude. I'm sure it's exhausting for everyone around me, but more importantly, it's exhausting for me to always be complaining about my pain. Especially on days that it hurts like hell, I try to put on a smile, engage in daily activities and conversations, and distract myself as much as possible. Tricking your brain doesn't always work, but it definitely can help.
2. Continue to live your life.
After my back surgery, I was told I could never waterski again. I had been competitively waterskiing for the last 14 years — no other news could have been worse. However, since fitness and my health was important to me, as well as using physical activity to de-stress, I took up a new activity: yoga. While I miss skiing, yoga has provided me a physical and mental activity that not only allows me to stay active, but also helps strengthen my back and body. I couldn't let my surgery or chronic pain dictate my life and stop me from being active; I just simply had to change the activity I did.
3. Ask for help.
For many, asking for help can be the hardest part. Especially as a young person, asking someone to pick up a box or carry an extra bag for you can be embarrassing. I've learned the hard way too many times that, rather being put up in bed for a day or two, it's better to ask those around you for a hand. Your friends and family will understand the difficulties you're facing; it's up to you to let them help and ask for assistance when you're in need.
Living with chronic pain is a life-changing burden and I cannot emphasize enough with those suffering; I'm sorry for what you have to go through. I hope these tips can help you cope and make getting through the day a little easier.