IT’S 3.30am and routine kicks in. I wake up knowing I need to move my body; otherwise I’m running a risk that I will end up with a middle of the night headache that will feel like I’ve been pierced in the head with a spear.
I turn over to try and find the sweet spot for my neck to lie and I need to do it quickly before I get too uncomfortable and end up staying awake. That will mean I will have to get up, because the pain will return in a few minutes.
This is one of the many routines I’ve had to get used to in the last 12 months or so since I’ve been diagnosed with chronic pain of the neck.
Chronic pain is usually defined as any pain which lasts more than ten weeks. In normal circumstances, pain is usually an acute sensation, a warning sign to the body of an injury or illness, whereas chronic pain is one that persists, often for months or longer.
According to a 2017 report by Pain Alliance Europe, one in five Europeans suffers from chronic pain with 34% of them defining it as severe. European estimates put the total cost of the consequences of this as €300 billion.
I can’t recall exactly when it started for me. I seem to remember pulling something in the gym, but more or less ignoring it, as you often do. After a few hours the burn dies down and you are back to normal. But it didn’t go away.
To be honest, I ignored the burning pain in the right side of my neck for a few weeks before I decided to have it looked at. I was handed the usual prescription of anti-inflammatory medication and told to report back to my GP in three weeks. But as those three weeks passed, things got worse. I began to notice stiffness at the back of my head and this pain was becoming worse by the day. The strain in my neck was also going nowhere and I was beginning to wake up with mild headaches in the morning.
Then the real pain began to kick in.
For the next two months, I spent my days in excruciating pain, unable to eat, sleep or even walk and with no idea of what was happening. My head felt like it was being hit with a hammer all day and night. Sometimes, the level of pain would die down a bit, but there was always a certain degree of it there to incapacitate you. I tried every painkiller. Paracetamol, which had no effect, codeine, which simply amplified the pain, and ibuprofen, which gave only a tiny amount of relief for a few hours.
Eventually, a spinal specialist diagnosed me with nerve damage in my neck area which was causing the pain and forcing my muscles and joints to seize up. This resulted in me suffering cervicogenic headaches — a pain that develops in the neck, though you feel it in their head, caused by an underlying condition, such as my neck injury.
A trigger point injection eventually killed the head pain and gave me relief for about six weeks. Once the injection began to wear off, I was back to constant pain and although I have managed to avoid the atrocious headaches, I still suffer long periods of complete physical shutdown and have to be wary of causing another ‘attack’ by over-straining my neck.
The strangest thing is that it is completely unpredictable; it can happen at any time and at any region in my neck area. It almost has a life of its own, moving from one point to another in a game of cat and mouse as if to avoid my treatments.
So now I’m at the stage where I am past any level of painkillers and looking for a way to manage the constant blur in my head and neck and try to live a normal daily life. And here is the issue that many who suffer from chronic pain will relate to. It’s easy to think you are okay, because most of the time there are no visible signs of your condition; you’re not limping, your arm is not in a sling and you’re still working day to day. But for many sufferers of chronic pain, it’s a constant battle to not only manage the pain, but to try a block it out and go on with your daily life.
It works sometimes, but when it gets too much, you break down and to many others, you just look like you’re in a bad mood, as you know people are probably tired of hearing that you’re not feeling well. So you soldier on grimly until the dark cloud subsides enough for you to go back to some sort of relative normality.
There are times the pain drops to such a low level, you hardly notice it and then you get the rush; like a stopwatch has gone off and you have only so much time to do what you need to do before the level of pain begins to rise again.
There is always the temptation of taking the likes of alcohol to numb the pain, but for me that’s a non-starter, as I really stopped drinking alcohol years ago. I did try comfort food, but the you lose so much of your appetite during the bad sessions. Over the last year, I probably lost over 15kg.
I’m still searching for ways to rid myself of this illness and believe physical training is beginning to help. I work out regularly, and having lost most of my fitness levels in the last year, it’s a slow process getting back on track, but my belief is the key to beating this is in the repair of the body itself.
I’ve also been trying acupuncture recently and noticed some short term differences. The main goal is to stay off long term medication, if possible. I’ll most likely have to receive a few more trigger point injections, but these are going to help me repair my body, not allow me to sit around.
The key is to never allow it to control you and for those who suffer from chronic pain, I say don’t give up fighting. Be busy, be active and try to keep your mind away from the pain as much as possible.
I know that is almost impossible sometimes, but giving in and letting it control your life is far worse.
Don’t be afraid to speak about your condition. There are many organisations there to help and give advice to sufferers of chronic pain.
Here are a number of organisations that may be able to assist you:
Pain Alliance Europe https://pae-eu.eu/
Pain UK https://painuk.org/
Chronic Pain Ireland https://www.chronicpain.ie/
2017 Pain Alliance Survey https://www.pae-eu.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/PAE-Survey-on-Chronic-Pain-June-2017.pdf