For many with fibromyalgia, chronic pain is simply a fact of life. It’s a disorder that affects at least 5 million Americans over the age of 18. 90% of sufferers are women. If you’ve never heard of this disorder, here’s a quick summary from the Mayo Clinic:
Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.
Symptoms sometimes begin after a physical trauma, surgery, infection or significant psychological stress. In other cases, symptoms gradually accumulate over time with no single triggering event.
Women are more likely to develop fibromyalgia than are men. Many people who have fibromyalgia also have tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression.
In addition to those mentioned above, symptoms can include cognitive difficulties (such as an inability to focus, known as “fibro fog”), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and interstitial cystitis or painful bladder syndrome.
If that sounds difficult, also consider this: fibromyalgia has no concrete cause, and no known cure.
But chronic pain is not limited to fibromyalgia sufferers. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), more than 100 million total Americans suffer from chronic pain of some kind. Various kinds of arthritis and many diseases can contribute to a life of pain. Pain can even be neurogenic (caused by nerve damage) or psychogenic (caused by mental factors). The fact remains: the majority of longtime pain sufferers are women.
Given that this is such a female-focused issue, it seems only right that I address it in my practice. I also deal with chronic pain in my own life. For those interested, here is a small piece of my story.
My Experience With Chronic Pain
I have had chronic pain for most of my life. Growing up, I thought that my pain was normal. Until I was in my teens, I believed that everyone felt the way I did. Despite realizing that my pain was somewhat unique, I continued to keep busy. I’ve taken the mentality that if you’re too busy to think about your pain, it will bother you less. That worked until about ten years ago, when I reached a crisis point. My pain was so bad that I could barely get out of bed and care for my kids. I could hardly function.
Most of the doctors I’d worked with to that point focused on my symptoms, rather than trying to determine the actual cause of my pain. My kids can tell you all about the litany of doctors I visited, many of whom tried to prescribe medications I didn’t need or ignored the problem entirely. Being treated like a bunch of symptoms – rather than a person, a whole package – was frustrating, as I’m sure my fellow pain sufferers can relate to. I felt like no one was listening. I even wondered if they were discounting my pain because I was a woman. (It turns out that I might have been right.)
For me, the breakthrough came when I spent several days at the Mayo Clinic, where they looked at the whole picture that was my health. By that time, I had done extensive research on my own. I was determined not to give up, and I kept pushing, asking questions, and pursuing an answer. At the clinic, they discovered genetic conditions that contribute to my elevated pain levels, and that has gone a long way to helping me manage my pain.
But even now, I have never received a specific, treatable diagnosis that relates to chronic pain. This, perhaps, is the most difficult aspect of suffering from chronic pain: it feels invisible. Which is why I started my practice. My goal is to help make women and their pain more visible, and to help them treat it without popping an assortment of pills that are doing more damage in the long run.
Enter Massage Therapy…
Massage therapy has been used for hundreds of years to relax the body, ease spasming muscles and joints, and improve quality of life. I hope that I don’t sound like a broken record when I say that, in my life and experience, massage is very effective for dealing with chronic pain. Don’t believe me? There are a few medical reasons why this is so.
Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has explained:
“Most people to go massage therapists to reduce pain. There’s a release of serotonin, which is the body’s natural production of anti-pain chemicals. Additionally, an aggravating factor in pain syndromes can be a lack of deep, restorative sleep. Massage is very effective at increasing deep sleep.”
For fibromyalgia, there are specific techniques – a lighter touch, gentle pressure, focused on stimulating blood flow – that are particularly effective. I regularly implement lymphatic massage in my treatment plans, a style that focuses on unblocking the body’s flow and promoting deep, restorative relaxation. The key is easing the body’s load. If your body is better rested and your mood is improved, you can much more easily fight off chronic pain.
For chronic pain sufferers, studies have suggested that frequent sessions are most effective. Your appointments should be close together, so as not to allow your body to become stressed again.
Many women I know are dealing with pain that medical practitioners aren’t taking seriously or that they just want to prescribe medication for. Women tend to just push their pain to the back until it takes over. I want to give women a place to acknowledge their pain, and I want to offer them a chance at relief.
My advice to any woman who deals with chronic pain is this: Don’t give up. “Just keep swimming!” First, find a medical practitioner who will take the time to listen to you. Don’t settle for sub-par care. And then, keep yourself moving. Set up a rhythm of activity, self-care, and then rest.
I hope that this has been helpful for you. Take the time for yourself. Your pain is legitimate. But it doesn’t define you. Let’s work on it.