Pain Medication: Blessing or Curse?
As a holistic bodyworker, I often find myself lamenting what I consider the overuse of pain medications in our society. During my training in Craniosacral Therapy, I was taught that pain is the “voice” of the body, trying to “tell” us that something is out of balance on some level and needs our attention. The analogy used during my training was of a person going to the doctor with abdominal pain that is diagnosed as a gall bladder problem that requires surgery. The surgery is done, the gall bladder is removed effectively silencing that “voice”, and sooner or later another problem arises. If the person continues on that path, then multiple surgeries could be expected, when one problem after another continues to arise. The same can be said for types of pain that may not have a “simple” surgical solution. In that case, rather than surgery to cut out the painful structure, pain medication would be prescribed, effectively silencing the “voice” by numbing it.
I was taught that the solution to this cycle of silencing the voice of the body with surgery or medication was to listen to what the body is trying to tell you, and address the problem at that level. Then the body would no longer need to present you with pain. I believed that fully at the time, and continue to believe it to some extent today. But I don’t think anything to do with the body is that simple.
For the most part I’ve carried a certain level of discomfort around the idea of people being on pain medication long term. I’ve never had a problem with its short term use, to get through the acute stage of pain. But I always felt that, with chronic pain, at some point the medication “crutch” needed to be discarded. I felt that to continue relying on its use was somehow abdicating personal responsibility to directly deal with the underlying issues causing the pain.
But last month I underwent a dental procedure that resulted in a complication. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I was in constant severe pain for almost 4 days.
In those 4 days, I had an intense love/hate relationship with a variety of pain medications. Percocet took the edge off the pain and knocked me out so I didn’t notice how horrible I felt for a few hours. But after about a day and a half, it left me extremely nauseous, to the point where I had to lie still with my eyes closed in order to tolerate the nausea. Vicodin wasn’t much better. Tylenol with codeine didn’t leave me feeling as nauseous, but it didn’t help the pain much either. Ibuprofen didn’t touch the pain. Other ways to deal with pain … from icing to trying relaxation exercises such as deep breathing … didn’t do anything to help it either.
So I was left with the choice of intolerable pain or intolerable nausea. Not a good place to be.
Throughout this ordeal, I couldn’t help but think of the people I’ve worked with, as well as the countless others I’ve never met, who LIVE with chronic severe pain. Day in and day out. No end in sight. At least for me, I knew that this was a temporary situation, and something (even though I didn’t know what, at the time) could be done to “fix” it, soon.
Thinking about these chronic pain sufferers in the context I was in evoked in me very strong feelings of humility (as someone who claims to be able to help people who are in pain) and compassion (as a human being).
It also caused me to examine my beliefs about pain medication. My current beliefs are not much different than those I started with, but they are tempered with a big dose of reality.
If you’re trying to decide whether to take pain medication, or if you’re struggling with the fact that you are taking it, I have this to say to you. Like anything, it’s not what you’re doing but why and how you’re doing it that really matters. If you’re taking pain medication to just “make the pain go away”, but not doing anything else to explore its possible root causes, then you may be doing yourself a disservice. By all means, take the medication that helps you, so you can live day to day. But don’t stop there. Get some help in exploring your pain from a mind body perspective, to see if there’s some underlying unresolved emotional issue that is causing your body to express this pain.
I’ll grant you, this is typically not an easy or straightforward process. It can be painful and difficult to go into those places that we have been working to avoid. But if you really work this process, the payoff can be immense.
And if you have been working a process like this but continue to have intolerable pain, then I would say do whatever you need to do to get through your days in the most gentle way possible. If you need pain medication, and it helps you, take it with gratitude, for it is truly a blessing that these things exist to help you.
Whatever you do, stay fully engaged with your process, continue to reach out for help, and hold yourself with as much compassion as you possibly can.