The Psychology of Chronic Pain

I’ve tried just about everything: ibuprofen, heating pads, ice, hot baths, narcotics, booze, physical therapy, muscle relaxers, TENS units.  No matter what I do, the pain remains.

Sometimes the pain is a dull ache in my lower back and legs.  Other times it grips my body — head, shoulders, arms, feet — making sleep impossible.  Always it’s there.

My husband will ask me what he can do to make me feel better.  “Get me a new spine,” I’ll say.  “Or new muscles.  Or an entirely new body.  Any of those would work.”  Truth is, there’s nothing he can do except believe me when I say today is not a good day.  Today I won’t be able to help out as much with the kids or carry the laundry up and down the stairs by myself.  Today I’m going to be a complete bitch, if it’s all the same to you.

Because that’s what chronic pain like my degenerative disc disease, bulging discs, and osteoarthritis reduces me to at times.  A complete bitch.

Medical doctors want to send me to a physical therapist who, depending on his methodology, is either somewhat effective or not at all.  They want to slice open my flesh and shave off the bulgy parts of my discs, even though such measures would only result in temporary pain relief for me given how indecisive those discs of mine are (sometimes they bulge to the left, sometimes to the right, and most frequently right into my nerve sac in the middle).

They want me to undergo a spinal fusion so that the vertebrae at my L4, L5, and S1 no longer pivot and move, an operation that carries a 3 month recovery time and an unspoken promise that I’ll need it again once the vertebrae just above the fusion get overused.

They want me to get MRIs and XRays and ultrasounds over and over again so they can marvel at how horrible it all looks — exactly as horrible as it did 5 years ago and the 3 before that and the 4 before that when I was first diagnosed at age 25.

They want me to take more ibuprofen during the day to reduce inflammation and muscle relaxers at night so I can sleep, but they won’t prescribe me pain meds so I can exist somewhat peacefully — pain meds are not a long-term treatment plan, they say.  They’re right, after all.  My organs can only flush out those toxins for so long.

None of it really helps.

There comes a point every year or so when the pain is so severe, I don’t care what the doctors say about my organs — I swear I’d mainline black tar heroin or sell my body on the streets for the kind of dope Jesus might reserve for himself if it would provide me just a couple hours of respite from the angry green men inside my body who slowly shave parts of my bone off and repeatedly stab my muscles with the product (because that’s what it feels like; an army of angry, germ-looking men with pointy teeth and vultures’ talons decimating my musculoskeletal system so they can feast on my marrow).

But the physical pain is not the worst.  It’s the toll on my emotions that drowns me.

The days requiring me to plaster a fake smile across my face for my students and my own children are increasing in number, as are the days when my sons find me laying in bed, heating pad on high.  To my dismay, “Mommy’s not feeling well” is becoming a staple phrase in our house.

That’s because pain doesn’t just affect the body.  It affects the mind, too.

Pain is a gateway to Grouchland.  It is a catalyst for short tempers and an igniter of fiery anger.  It is the cocoon of depression and the cradle of antipathy.  It is hell.

Pain is hell.

I don’t want my children to grow up and remember me as always unwell.  I don’t want them to remember me as grumpy and contrary.  I don’t want them to inherit all the can’ts and won’ts and maybe tomorrows of their childhood.

But it’s already starting.  My oldest has already said on numerous occasions that he can’t do something because his back or his legs hurt.  Neither his back nor his legs hurt.  Just my soul when I hear those words come out of his mouth, for those words are not really his at all.  They’re mine.  My words.

And that’s perhaps the worst side effect of chronic pain there is — the psychological one for both the sufferers and those whom they love.

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit: