How Visualizing My Pain as a Red Ball Helps


After 34 surgeries, I know what physical pain is. The chronic pain I deal with became easier to manage and understand when I found a more adequate way to explain it. Think of a red ball rolling down the street; if it’s bouncing high and going fast, you can’t catch it, right? But if it stops bouncing, it rolls down the street a little slower, giving you more time to catch up to it. That’s what it’s like living with chronic pain – you’re constantly trying to outrun a ball that changes size and speed whenever it feels like it.

Typical descriptions of physical pain are done on a pain scale of one to 10, which is helpful, but not truly descriptive. The problem with giving a “number” for pain is that I am not a number. I am a whole person and those of us who live with chronic pain must do so regardless of where it falls on the pain scale at any moment.

Instead, I describe physical pain as a tight and twisted moving red ball that is rolling around in my body — the pain level has to do with how tightly the ball is wound, how twisted up it is, and how fast it’s rolling and bouncing around my body. The ball is red because it demands attention. If the ball is tightly wound, it’s uncomfortable but not necessarily an impediment to my entire day. If it’s bouncing around, the pain is pretty bad. Pain is the worst when the ball is highly twisted, bouncing around, and rolling fast.

If you live with chronic pain, you know this red ball of pain isn’t rolling away from you, it’s rolling towards you. Sometimes it’s farther away making it easier to ignore and other times, the ball bounces hard, straight into your body – completely jolting you out of whatever you were doing or thinking about.

When the ball is farther away, you can get a lot done. Those are productive hours or good days. Eventually, though, you know the ball is coming. It chases you down and can cancel your plans for a good day.

The upside of explaining my pain this way is that because it’s a red ball, I can turn it into a game. The red ball of pain versus Sarah, and sometimes I win! If I can sense the ball coming towards me before it actually hits, I envision it shrinking in size, getting less red, and slowly rolling father away. If the ball has already hit me I stop and tune into to where it hit (often my back as I have a rod in there due to scoliosis) and I check to see how twisted the ball is. Sometimes I picture the ball becoming untwisted so it’s less dense. Sometimes I kick the ball away just as it briefly touches me. When the ball has bounces into me with great force, though, it changes the game. It also changes my plans. My game of pain stopping involves prayer, yoga, meditation, massage, rest, and medication, during which I continue to visualize the red ball of pain change form and size. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t, but turning my pain into an inanimate object separate from me helps me better manage it.

Most of all, explaining my physical pain as an ever changing red ball helps remind me and others that pain is a thing while I am a whole person. If you live with chronic pain, I encourage you to try out this description and visualization of pain and let me know how it works for you.

Getty Image by sakkmesterke


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