Lessons in pain

Our bodies are amazing. When every part functions well, it’s easy to take them for granted. And perhaps not to take as good care of them as they deserve.

It’s when something goes wrong, when I feel pain or get ill, that I am called to look at how I could do better to sustain this thing we call the temple of our soul.

What happened to me last week is my upper back—somewhere in the right middle trapezius—suddenly became highly inflamed with attendant acute pain I’d rank 7 out of 10. It literally sprang forth overnight.

The first day I woke up with pangs of excruciating pain whenever I moved the wrong way. I had trouble getting out of bed without wincing. Throughout the day, a piercing pang could be caused by bending down to pick a pan out of the cupboard, or, heaven forbid, sneezing or laughing!

Later in the day, the soreness moved up towards the top of my shoulder (my levator scapulae), with pains occasionally shooting up my neck and down my arms.

I can’t say definitively what made my back unhappy. Maybe I slept on it wrong, as one friend suggested. Maybe I put myself out of alignment from spending too many hours sitting in front of my screen, moving only mouse and fingers on the keyboard. Maybe the primary cause doesn’t always matter so much.

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Max Planc

My friend Alison in the UK, physiotherapist, Munay Ki practitioner, and author of Daring to Feel: Awaken the Healer Within got on zoom with me and invited me to sit with my body feelings, to breathe, observe, be curious, and to dialog with the pain to see what it was telling me. By doing this, along with some gentle self-massage exercises, I could relax my shoulders enough to feel that I wasn’t fighting the pain, just letting it be. That at least changed the energy around the ache, even if I failed to find any surprising insights.

Like most people, I’d guess, I’ve had my share of pains over the years. Toothaches, backaches, muscle aches, gallbladder attacks. I remember in the mid-80s I was in a fancy Italian restaurant when my lower back acted up and I lay flat down on the floor for some minutes to give it relief!

Yet nothing throughout my anti-cancer treatments ever caused me intolerable pain; not needles, not surgeries, not medication, not radiation, nothing. And you can bet your boots I’ve been mighty grateful for that!

For sure each of us experiences pain differently. I’ve alluded to how some people might be prone to prompts to feel pain. And that points to a mental or emotional element in pain.

Pain is a complex subject. I was once told by a dentist I had a low pain threshold as I kicked when she drilled my teeth without anesthesia and hit nerves. Others have observed I have a high threshold. I always wondered how they assessed that.

In Alison’s book on self-healing, chapter 2 is about pain, and her first paragraph is revealing:

Pain is an elusive sensation that no one has been able to see, measure, or capture on camera or with any instrument, despite decades of research. It comes in many forms and is sometimes difficult even to identify. It’s not composed of solid matter—no atoms or electrons—or anything that can be quantified scientifically. We can measure the effects of pain by how it impinges upon our ability to live our lives and carry out physical activities, but as yet we are no closer to finding the essence of pain. It changes form, quantity, and quality. It comes and goes as if by magic: a trickster, or master magician.

Alison Lingwood

On the second day, just a few days ago, when the pain reached an almost unbearable level, I was momentarily of a mind to call off the pot luck dinner I wanted to host in our home. I had invited my Friday Sundowner friends over and I knew I’d be in awful shape to be a useful host. I resisted that temptation to cancel, and I’m ever so glad I did. Our evening was lovely despite my pain, and my honey and friends merrily stepped in to do what needed to be done and more.

After they left, I took two ibuprofen anti-inflammatory pills and crashed in bed. The relentless pain had exhausted me. I slept 16 hours.

And when I awakened, as if by magic, yes! the acute pain was gone. Crazy. I only still feel some minor tenderness in the back area.

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.

Irish proverb

Did I learn anything from this two-day pain experience? Maybe not new, but gentle reminders:

  • I can lean into pain and let it take its course, without serious medical intervention
  • Sleep and gentle massage nurture and heal the body and more
  • I can allow myself to feel helpless, at least temporarily, to know I can’t always (if ever) be in control, while letting my body do its own healing
  • Friends are glad to help when asked, and there’s no indignity in asking
  • It serves me better to be less in my head, and give my body more of a voice and more attention
  • As it’s so often said these days, sitting is the new smoking… and I need to move more, to stretch more

Our bodies are amazing indeed. And they need to be heeded and honored.

This upper back pain was an intense distraction from my eye. There’s been no change on that front; my blurry world lingers. I continue to resist next steps, meaning more tests. I’ll surely do them eventually, but I must get beyond feeling test-weary. In the meantime, I’m talking to the raised retina in my eye and asking it to shrink away, magically, just as the acute pain in my back faded away.

What is your relationship with your body? With pain? Do you tend to seek an immediate medical or drug solution? Or do you listen and dialog with your pain and ask it what it wants to tell you?

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  • Thanks for sharing this Francisca. There are always so many learnings coming out of your blogs. The most pain I experienced was after a car accident in 1988. I was hit by a drunk driver and suffered neck and back injuries as a result. I lived with excruciating headaches for years until a doctor finally found a medication that worked. I got my life back. A person doesn’t appreciate coping with pain until they find themselves in that situation. I am so sorry that you experienced such acute pain in your back but I am glad that you went ahead with your dinner party. I am sure being around your husband and friends did you the world of good. Jerry and I send you our love!

    • Thanks, Lisa, for sharing and your love. 🌸💜🌸 Pain sure is a pain for all who feel it and have to endure it, especially when it’s chronic! Ugh to your accident! My worst pain was a series of gallbladder attacks I suffered in the mid 1970s… the only time I ever just wanted to die! Fortunately my body healed itself then, too.

  • An old friend and one of my father’s students now retired as a doctor suggested my back & leg muscle “cramps” could be eased by increasing my vitamin C intake. I increased my morning orange juice from 125ml to 250ml and I now have a satsuma or orange after supper. It may be coincidence, but the muscle cramps have disappeared, leaving the usual pain from the pinched nerves in my degraded spine.

    • May also be the potassium in oranges helping reduce your cramping, Alan. I eat a lot of fruit, living in the tropics, and I supplement magnesium and other electrolytes to help stem cramps. My chronic pinched nerves were fixed by a skillful chiropractor some decades ago. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • “8 more!” your fitness instructor says…hahaha!!!!! (And of course, with loud beat-y music in the background…)

    Love you.

  • I feel your pain as I have regularly back pain. Apparently my spinal cord is not straight anymore, I have a long back so I am prone to bad posture and injuries.

    I will only speak for me here. I indeed never really took care of my body (like most people).
    My first awakening was when you made me discover Dr. Mark Hyman. At that time I was pre-diabetic, with high cholesterol, addicted to sugar, foggy mind and with low energy. Watching his video’s and other like minded people made me realise I was killing myself slowly.
    Now I eat with the purpose of feeding my body well. I feel so much better than 5 years ago.

    And since last year I realise I neglected “moving” my body. Not just doing sports… but moving all my body (-parts) for a purpose. Not for shape or beauty. Not going to the gym to bulk up. Moving for a purpose. It will be difficult to get my body in shape… I lost muscle mass, bone mass, flexibility, etc. Being a senior I am now prone to injuring myself…

    But I will not give up… even if it will be painful and challenging. I need to regain some flexibility and strength.
    Tai Chi and yoga is quite nice and soft on the body. There are so many you tube video’s for everyone’s ability.

    Check out the video’s of Ido Portal who explain it well. Of course this is too late for me :-p
    Besides “moving” is his profession.
    There are other’s like Wendy Suzuki.

    If you don’t use it you lose it.

    I have one meek excuse. In my time there was no Internet, You Tube, Podcasts, TikTok video’s which teaches you the right things to do. Nowadays there is a wealth of information at our fingertips.

    My only advice… start moving much more. Even if you feel low energy, even if you have no time, even if you don’t want to. If you don’t do it…it can only get worse… and I don’t like the prospect of a wheelchair.

    Take care !!!

    • It pleases me to no end that I could play a role in getting you on the better health track, Sidney! Yay! Use it or lose it is indeed the right mantra for our muscles. Wrote about that earlier in a post titled Use it or lose it last year. As I wrote then, I have been active my entire life; it’s only the past handful of years that the more sedentary living came about. The pandemic and my anti-cancer journey didn’t help; I lost about 8 kilos and much of that in muscle mass. Sadly, since that post, I’ve not added enough movement to my daily routine… your advice is sage. You take care, too. 🌸🙏🌸

  • Wow Francisca, I love your insights from the experience of pain you had never felt so strongly before. The natural flow returned as you surrendered to the body’s own intelligence and listening to what it was telling you you needed. Fab. And with amazing speed….. watching that space of regenerative creativity is nothing less than miraculous. Please keep being curious

  • Hi, Francisca,
    Pain? I have a spinal constriction in my neck – an arthritic growth resulting from a “whiplash” injury some 50 years ago – that results in occasional “shooting pains” and “pins and needles” in my arms and lower down. The pains lower down are further caused by chronic osteoporosis of the spine with, at the last count, six “slipped discs”.
    For most of the time a painkiller called Pregabalin makes life tolerable, although to walk any distance I need a “rollator”, and descending a staircase is a severe hazard as each step downwards puts extra pressure on my spine. I am not allowed to carry any weights for the same reason.
    Recently (in the last few days) a severe pain has manifested itself in my right hip area shortly after getting out of bed each morning, but I have my doubts as to whether it is due to trapped or constricted nerves in my spinal column. Paracetamol helps. Lactic acid build-up due to lack of vitamin C?

    • Oh, so sorry, Alan… that all sounds brutal! While the medical field has come far in the past century, there’s so so so much farther to go in getting adequate diagnoses and treatments. I hope you are working with professionals you trust and who take a whole body approach to healing. 🌸🙏🌸

      • Francisca,
        My General Practitioner Doctor, who effectively saved my life in 2015 by diagnosing potential cancer of the oesophagus at a preliminary stage, occasionally lays into me regarding my nutrition and exercise. She insists I should exercise to the limit of my ability, and eat more “greens”.

        • Sounds like sage advice to me, Alan! I’m better with the greens than the exercise, myself, although we do walk 30 minutes almost nightly. I definitely need to stretch more. All I dare to say is listen to your body. Take good care. 🌸🙏🌸

  • I’m sorry – of course – you had the pain but this is such a good read! And a good resolution from start to finish to have heard it without awareness of it while it was underway…

    I had a bump – an harmless, in that case near painless infection – and named it as a frienemy. What brought it to me?

    Your story and reflection treated your pain in a similar way…your description taught me how it was pain as both a physical experience and in its communication and distraction. Lol, I did “speak with it” – hence naming it and giving me a clear way to address and send that pain. One heck of a disruption which is sometimes the worst of it.when the pain is that strong it may be different but perhaps that’s the helpful distinction in high/low capacity – that’s used in conflict circles too!).

    I’m so glad yours was gone as it was!!

    • Yeah, frienemy is a good name… pain always has a message, and affects us in myriad ways, Joan. Other than not letting it defeat me (as in calling off our scheduled in-person gathering we all wanted so much), I didn’t even look at all the other ways it was affecting me, my plans, my obligations. Hope your bump is gone too, or soon will be. 🌸💜🌸

      • Oy my message needed an editor!! Lol!! 😝

        I’m so glad you were able to – or will – gather and are better. With all we know about human experience we still do – in my opinion – a lousy job around how we experience pain physically, psychologically or socially…or the pain of not doing well!! It’s so layered so often!

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