Friday, October 07, 2011

Mystery of Pain

Grappling with Stress and Pain

As a precocious 27-year-old, I developed my first chronic stress-related disorder -- neck pain. In the ensuing five years, there were a few days I couldn't move my neck at all, a few when I thought I had it solved, but mostly I hovered in a somewhat functional state between stiff and sore. Through five years of yoga, dance, and work, I developed a hyper-awareness for my body's tension, the tension inherent in our workplaces, and the tension between medicine's promise and reality. Neck pain became my best friend and teacher, an eternal companion promoting awareness. Today I'm going to start out with the mystery of this pain. Over the course of a few future posts, I'll share the answers I found, building towards a unified theory that will fuse many things that inspire me.

"I didn't know YOU had stress!"
For the first quarter-century of my life, I've thought of myself as cool under pressure, a master of stress, to the point where I was self-appointed expert on stress management (sorry, world). In the previous two months, I had graduated from grad school, taken a vacation to the Middle East, and presided at my friends' wedding. All seemingly "positive" occurrences, you might think, but stress has no such discrimination. In fact, I had nightmares for a month or two after that I had failed out of grad school, screwed up the wedding, and missed my flight.
Then came one day when I was at a family reunion, relaxing in the pool with my nephew.
I was playing a (quite stupid) game that involved my nephew dunking me under water, and, in the process, jumping with all his weight on my neck and shoulders. My neck got a little sore after a few minutes, which of course I ignored, as I was used to being invincible. Then it got REALLY sore, and finally I decided it was time to stop. My neck was inflamed, and it was hard to move in either direction. I'm sure many of you have felt this way after a bad night's sleep. My nephew's mom, fortunately, was a physical therapist. Feeling my upper back, she found many areas of tightness, often caused by repetitive muscle contractions, which impeded the natural flexibility of my tendons and muscles. These inherent resistances dramatically reduced my body's ability to cope with physical stress (i.e. nephew jumping on me) and were the indirect cause of my inflammation. While neck pain in this particular episode subsided after a couple of days, the overall "condition" came back in a few months, as I joined the multinational "Big Yellow", and remained for years.

My cousin, who knew me well, had felt in my back a very different person than I was projecting. "I didn't know YOU of all people had stress!" Neither did I.

Of course, men and women handle stress differently, as has been oft-studied and ofter-reported. Women are supposed to diffuse stress through conversation with close friends, where men often take a more physical or non-verbal tact to reduce stress. According to an evolutionary biologist I once read, men are more likely to hold residual tension in there shoulders and necks, and women are more likely to grind their teeth, although in practice, I've heard of both types of coping in both sexes. It was in that moment, communing with our ancestors, that I knew there was an answer, somewhere.

What is the nature of pain?
How much of this pain was universal? I ran, did capoeira, yoga, ultimate frisbee, was basically vegetarian, didn't drink too much, didn't smoke, was happy and social. How is it that someone so young and otherwise healthy could be occasionally debilitated by this kind of pain? Why do the 24-year-olds I work with now have the same pattern of tension and pain? Was I, at some level, causing this pain? If so, did that mean I could just wake up one day, and STOP causing it? Or was work the cause of it? BUT I had one of the best jobs imaginable at Big Yellow, where I was treated well and trusted. Or was it just a physical problem? Maybe if I just changed my pillow or desk, went to a physical therapist or yoga class, I'd be okay. What I found out about my pain led me far from my initial questions towards something more universal than I imagined.


Abe said...

Have you read ?

Recommended for its blend of humanistic and scientific perspectives on pain.

eudae said...

I haven't - it's now on the amazon queue, thanks!

zoe lunch said...

i'm reading that book right now. apparently over time, your nerves can become more sensitized to chronic pain, so that it's not necessarily something causing it anymore, but a learned neural pattern. great.

eudae said...

@zoe - yeah, as i (hopefully) am getting towards the end of the neck pain saga, i'm finding one of the hardest obstacles is trying to forget "i'm somebody with chronic neck pain." maybe the memory is in my nerves too. yikes!

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