Monday, January 4, 2016

Someone who has lived with chronic pain for years can tell you what it is like to always think of your limitations first when presented with an opportunity; to make sure you have enough pain medication to last through the weekend or holiday; to get caught up in something you love, only to realize that the pain has worsened and you have to stop. It is like living in an ever-shrinking box.

The frustrating fact is that ongoing pain is not always caused by physical problems in the present moment, but rather by the neuronal memory stored by your nerves through your body and in brain pathways. 

To picture this better, imagine that you live in the center of a vast grassland. In every direction, you are surrounded by grass and bushes as high as your waist, and to get to anything else, you have to go through the unmarked fields. At first you may not know where to start or what direction to take because you have never ventured out, but once you get your bearings and find out that Trader Joe’s is to the South, Walmart is to the Northwest, and McDonald’s is to the East, among many other attractions, you will soon find that you choose favorites. These are the paths, then, that get larger and well worn. If you are a Trader Joe’s hippie and hate all things Walmart, your Walmart pathway will disappear as the grass grows back over it and the Trader Joe’s path will become smoother, broader, and more comfortable for travel. In fact, when you have some friends over and they need an outing, you are more likely to take them on the path you know the best. 

In relation to the brain, once you have sustained an injury that caused significant pain and whose healing took time, your nerves become accustomed to sending those pain signals from the original site of injury along the neuronal pathways, through your dorsal horn in your spinal column, and up into your brain. 

Meanwhile, the pleasure pathways have been crowded out by weeds because the pain of that ruptured ligament or smashed cartilage overpowered everything pleasant until all you could feel was pain. This often means that, by the time your body is fully functional again, your nerves have dug such deep pain signals that they almost default to that setting as a general, unprovoked response. 

The added problem is that chronic pain has a spiraling effect. Since the experience of pain produces the stress hormone cortisol, which also allows us to feel the pain more acutely, the two build on each other, breaking down your immune system in the process and making you vulnerable to other problems. 

The problems with NSAIDS and opiates and narcotics are numerous. Anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen can damage your liver and eat through your stomach lining if you take them without food or take them too often, in general. Opiates and narcotics, of course, are many addicts’ drug of choice. They are all designed for damage control, not healing. In the long run, our bodies build up a tolerance to man-made drugs, which means that gradually you need to take more and more to get the same level of relief. 

Herbs, on the other hand, do not come with the usual host of tolerance and toxicity. As someone who was raised in Western culture, I believed that herbal remedies were a soft option that acted more as a placebo. I’ll make my conversion story short: I am now a believer. 

No matter what kind of pain you are in, there is an herb that is designed to help. Designed by the inventor of symbiotic ecosystems and the planets, I might add. 

The “pain relief” heading neglects the subtlety of the herbalist’s understanding. Arnica, comfrey, and Devil’s Claw are all meant to treat pain, but while Arnica is great for bruises, swelling, recovery from childbirth, sprains, dislocations, and general trauma injuries, Devil’s Claw is better suited to back pain, arthritis, tendonitis, and joint pain. Devil’s Claw, as a side note, is also a mainstay herb for people trying to lessen their dependence on pain medications.

In treating my chronic pain, I needed something I could safely use everyday that would not harm me in the long term. The key to coping with chronic pain is to keep it at a low level consistently. If you keep your pain steady at a 3 instead of letting it spike to an 8 and then trying anything you can swallow to numb out, you have more options. You are not held hostage by your condition. Consistency in pain management also means you are giving your neuronal pathways a chance to experience something other than pain — the chance to re-learn and feel pleasure again.