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Returning to Work With Complex Regional Pain Syndrome

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Recently, after five months of medical leave, I returned to my full-time office job. Everyone asks how I’m doing and am I better? I smile, and say “much better,” but the truth is — really I’m not. I have my good days and bad days, but this is not a place to explain that. So, I resist the urge to tell the truth and I say what people expect to hear.

The first week back was tough. By Thursday afternoon the only thing on my mind was getting through Friday and the beckoning of Netflix and my down comforter. I was technically off work due to bilateral tendinitis and epicondylitis in my elbows and hands. But, since a flare-ups of CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome) is typically triggered by bouts of unrelenting pain, I was now also dealing with allodynia (burning skin pain), occipital neuralgia (electric shock-like headaches) and Raynaud’s disease (painful circulation issues).

Before I left work, I struggled for months on end with generalized anxiety, sciatica and interstitial cystitis. Sitting at a desk for 40 hours a week had taken a toll on my already-fragile body. My hands were painfully cold, my fingertips were white and my elbows ached so badly that even raising my arms to type had become unbearable.

According to the doctor, I had no other choice — the only way to get better was to rest and to go to therapy.

During my time off, I read lots of books and watched countless documentaries. I went for short, daily walks and found a weekly support group. Eventually, I started writing, but only after I’d finished months of occupational and physical therapy, changed medications twice and gave my hands time to heal. I did a ton of introspection and worked with a psychotherapist to process the emotional issues that surround my chronic pain. I was anxious and apprehensive about returning to work, but as I progressed, he helped me realize that returning to work — in any capacity — would be a personal success.

I still have lower back nerve impingement with shooting sciatic pain and paresthesia (pins and needles). And, while sitting is the biggest culprit, it’s not my employer’s problem or their fault that my body constantly seems to fail me.

I’m back at work, but I’m already restless. I take hourly “micro-breaks” and lots of deep breaths. I stretch often to ease the pain and quell anxiety. I’m happy to be engaging with adults and doing meaningful work, but, to be honest — I’m scared.

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I fight off anxiety by reminding myself that CRPS is cyclical — the symptoms wax and wane. Just because I feel miserable today, doesn’t mean I’m doomed forever. Watching that stinkin’ thinking, my therapist says, is mission critical. Otherwise, I fall into awfulizing, which can cause me to spiral into anxiety and depression, perpetuating the painful cycle.

Yes, this is incredibly difficult, and let’s be honest, it sucks. But, that point doesn’t change a thing.

Change happens, for me, only by staying in each moment, each minute and hour of the day. I start my morning with meditation and pray for the courage, strength and focus to get me through today.

The truth is pain is exhausting and I’ve learned that it’s OK to admit it. I’m often tired and sometimes, grumpy, but I’m allowed to be.

In the midst of pain, I’m also grateful — I made it to the end of another week.

Getty image via Maryviolet

Originally published: December 10, 2020
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