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What It Was Like When My Pain Went to a '10'


Every person with chronic pain knows their limits. We all know what a “five” is versus what a “10” is. We all know what is bearable and what is maddening. We know the difference between a good pain day, a “normal” pain day and a bad pain day. I’ve had bad pain days before. But, last night and into this morning, my pain hit a new level.

I have chronic pain due to extreme back issues coupled with fibromyalgia. As of today, my back has been out for nine days. This isn’t new for me. My back goes out roughly twice a year, whether I injure it further or not. The first three days were bad enough that I couldn’t walk. The pain was a combination of inflammation, swelling, tenderness to touch, stabbing pain and topped with the feeling that someone had literally set my body on fire, from my shoulder blades to my knee caps.

In the middle of the week, I was able to try one of my back exercises known as the “cat-camel.” The pain was beyond severe. I did two cat-camels before I had to stop because I was on the brink of tears. I don’t consider myself someone who cries easily. In other words, it takes a lot of physical or mental pain to get me to cry.

Late last night, I tried to sleep like I had been all week. I had the same result as I had in previous nights; I got up within an hour of laying down, unable to sleep due to the severity of the pain. Around 4 a.m., I went back to bed to try and sleep. I was able to sleep enough that I wasn’t totally awake. At some point, my husband’s hand on my back was painful enough for me to flail before sitting up in bed.

Within a minute of sitting up, tears were pouring down my face. My body was rigid, every breath was more painful than the last, my skin felt like it was on fire and searing pain raced from my shoulder blades to my knees, front to back. I felt worse than I have felt since 2003 when I had been diagnosed with gallstones.

I was openly weeping. My husband, trying to help, was asking me clarifying questions. I snapped and yelled, getting up and fleeing into the bathroom. I stood over the sink, sobbing, waiting for the hot water to come from the faucet. I needed a washcloth for my eyes to prevent burning and wincing and leading to a tension headache. As I stood there, my husband came in, extremely concerned, and asked me, “Where is the pain?” I couldn’t explain where it was or how bad it was because I couldn’t think straight. He placed his hand on my back, just below my shoulder blades, and my knees wobbled, my legs giving with the sheer intensity of his touch. I felt as though he had struck me with a crow bar.

That one touch was enough to take my sobbing up from a cry to a wail. I got to the point where I was crying with my mouth open and no sounds emerging. I was shaking and gasping for air, trying to breathe into it. It did no good.

My husband applied a tincture of Chinese herbs to my back as gently as he could. The cool temperature of the tincture combined with his touch was enough to make me wobble again. I held on to the sink with both hands, my chest and back heaving with tears. Finally, he told me that he was going to call an ambulance. I asked him through my cries to give me a moment to see if the tincture helped.

Thankfully, it did. The pain I was in before felt, no exaggeration, like a 10. To me, labor wasn’t even that painful. The gallstones were close, but the pain there was at least spaced out. This was just constant. No break.

As I crawled slowly into bed, I put my head where my feet would go, curled up and placed pillows between my knees, behind my back and under my head. I had to stretch several times to find a position where my legs weren’t screaming and trying to run off by themselves, or so it felt.

I slept an hour and a half before he had to get up for work and then I slept for 45 more minutes. I finally got up and came into our living room where, after he’d left for work, I crashed. I slept until noon with one muscle relaxer in my system, a blanket, my robe and a hot-water bottle behind me. I couldn’t take my pain medication because of a mix-up with the pharmacy.

This experience was an indicator. It let me know what a 10 looks like for me right now. It let me know my new limit. I let me know about my appetite’s response (I’ve had a few bites of food today). It let me know how my husband will react to a 10. It let me know so many things.

Just that break in the pain, when I finally got my medication, was enough to drop the pain down to a five within 45 minutes. What a blessing. What a curse.

I hope that every one of you has an emergency toolkit for these days. I honestly can’t even fathom having another 10 experience any time soon. We all need to support each other and be there to help cope with these events. They are nothing short of traumatic. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this.

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Thinkstock photo by itsmejust