Does my pain have street cred even if you can’t see it?

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It started off innocently enough…..some serious car accidents that I was not supposed to be able to walk away from. So, right off the top, I already know I am a blessed woman. I have not forgotten that. Then, the residual injuries slowly and insidiously crept in and invaded my bones and nerves, but that was to be expected over time. It’s not the kind of thing that you consider very much at the time because you are just lucky to be alive, right? A few aches and pains are nothing compared to losing your spot on Earth. Gotta keep it in perspective.

However, fast forward 20 years and words like stenosis and spurs and compression dominate my latest MRI. Right now as we speak, I am thanking my lucky stars that I did not have any patients today because I am having the granddaddy of all fibro flares. Being able to be at home allows me to take my Motrin, stay in my pajamas, drink a ton of water, and lay back in my ice helmet all day if I need to. I don’t have to show off my unsteady gait because of the inner ear inflammation. I don’t have to struggle just to move my arms and legs while hot pokers of pain are sticking through them as I am faking a smile. I don’t have to worry that my head and neck may blow right off my shoulders at any minute. ( Ok. Just kidding on that one. I know that is not going to happen. It just feels like it is.) I don’t have to be afraid that someone will want to show me affection with a hug that I might stiffen during, afraid to offend them because their display of kindness will only translate to pain for me. I can run to the bathroom as many times as I want with the temporary IBS symptoms that I get. Please do not misunderstand. If I had patients today, I would get myself to the hospital somehow because that is the job that I love and I would just spend the day worrying about who I let down that day anyway..lol. There is no question about it. I am just saying that I can get through this flare a little faster if I am able to concentrate at home. I consider myself lucky at this point. I am not on any chronic pain meds. That is largely because I am ferociously stubborn and the fact that I realize that, with my family history, that would potentially be a move with more risk than benefit. I still go to work. I live my life as fully as I can. I struggle but am mostly successful in maintaining an empowered attitude, which I truly feel impacts the severity of my disease. But, there are some days like this one when I need to just stop a second and breathe.

The thing is, I am not different than millions of people who are suffering from those chronic, invisible diseases every day. There are so many of them: arthritis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression and mental illness, diabetes, digestive disorders like IBS or celiac, Lyme disease, migraines, Lupus, and Sjogrens. So, what the heck do I mean by a chronic, invisible disease? An invisible disease is one that does not show obvious external signs or symptoms. They may cause symptoms like dizziness, pain, fatigue, or mental health issues. None of these are things that a person walking by would notice. If they look ok, they must be ok, right? Wrong! Occasionally, we get excited about one of these conditions if they get featured in an article about a celebrity that was affected. But, the vast majority of the time, they go unrecognized and misunderstood by both health care providers and the general public. This really adds to the mental weight of these conditions for the patient and paves the way for feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Did you know that the U.S Department of Health and Human Services estimates that by the end of 2020, 157 million people in the United States will be affected by a chronic illness? In addition to that, the United States Census Bureau estimates that 96% of these chronic illnesses are invisible. That is a huge number! Did you also know that many studies have been done as far back as the 1990s that looked at the lack of validation( belief that the patient was really suffering) as a factor in their disease. The vast majority of patients in the focus groups said that lack of validation was their most significant challenge in managing their condition. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? We all want to be believed. When someone doesn’t believe us, it actually has the power to cause it’s own kind of pain, beside the physical pain we are already experiencing.

There are so many misconceptions about invisible chronic illness. The first one we have already discussed. A person must feel ok if they look ok. We already know that is incorrect. Most patients with these conditions have spent a great deal of time developing coping mechanisms to allow them to enjoy regular daily life. I do it every day. The second one is the conception that the person just needs to rest and they will feel better. I can tell you first hand that all the sleep in the world is not going to break or cure a fibro flare. Sometimes, you can’t even sleep because the pain gets so ridiculous. A third misconception is that all people with chronic invisible illness are really drug seekers. Labelling all of those patients as drug seekers once goes back to the lack of validation of their symptoms that I mentioned earlier. The implication that they are drug seekers indicates that their symptoms cannot be real and they cannot be in any kind of true pain. Wrong again. Another misconception that I hear is that those patients that unable to work because of their pain must “have it made” because they get to stay at home all day and goof off. I actually have heard people say this with an obvious tone of jealousy because they truly think that those homebound patients have a dreamy lifestyle, doing whatever they want all day. Let me paint you a picture: You are trapped at home, in pain, unable to work and support yourself and unable to do the things that you enjoy on a regular basis. Does that actually sound dreamy to you? I think not. Last but not least, I have heard that stress reduction is all that these patients need to get better and that their pain is “all in their head” and they need to “get over it.” Stress is definitely a factor in pain severity, as is emotion. As stress invokes emotion, pain is heightened. Emotion and perception of pain signals are biologically intertwined. However, stress does not CAUSE pain. You can be just sitting somewhere, minding your own business watching butterflies and a flare can envelop you before you know it. That kind of thinking is far too simplistic to explain chronic pain. It really boils down to another type of lack of validation.

The real question to ask is how do you support these patients, not how to cure them. There are no cures as of yet for any of the diseases that I mentioned. There may be treatments, but not cures. Many of these treatments have side effects that need to be weighed against the symptoms of the disease itself. This is important to keep in mind. So, how do you support them? You support them by listening and believing them and throwing away your preconceived biases if possible. Try not to get frustrated because you can’t cure them or that there is no obvious external marker for you to pick up on and follow. Be supportive when they need it and back off when they need space. These patients are challenging to say the least. I always use a multi-disciplinary approach that addresses the physical and the mental aspects of their condition. The team approach has worked the best in my practice. These patients are going to need pain control options, whether it be massage and acupuncture, anti-inflammatorys, Lyrica or narcotics. Their pain is real. Be ready. Most of all, you need to believe them. Sometimes the very key to their path to a reasonable quality of life may just be getting someone to listen. Have a fantastic day everyone!

Dr. Katz

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