Public health policy desperately needs to re-frame its recommendations regarding the management of chronic pain or we will drown under escalating healthcare costs and effects of the increased consumption of prescription pain pharmaceuticals.
Add to this the treatment of associated depression and anxiety with antidepressants/anti-anxiety medications and people with chronic pain end up taking a cocktail of very powerful psychoactive chemicals, all funded by our public and private health system.
But there is another way…
Two weeks ago, on the slopes of Naeba Snow Resort in Yuzawa, Japan, I began developing a migraine. It was not a normal headache, with pain in the temples and ache across the forehead but a change in the pressure of my skull, altered balance and vision, sensitivity sound and light, breath becoming laboured and the deep ache that begins at the base of my skull.
At the time, I was on a ski lift, on the way to the top of an intermediate ski slope and there was only one way down from there, or at least one preferred way of going down. So, I began to consciously relax my body and breath, taking my awareness inside my body. Meditation was the Ace up my sleeve.
I found the muscles that were holding tension and released the tension with my out-breath. instantly felt my mind become more spacious and the migraine begin to soften, as I focussed my attention on the back of my skull.
Now the more difficult stage of skiing down the slope.
Skiing is still relatively new to me, not yet in automatic body memory. I only learnt to ski two years ago, as a 49-year-old person with MS, so every run still contains a certain amount of wonder and trepidation. The normal unknowns of skiing combined with the extra ingredient of not knowing if any of my limbs or faculties would spontaneously fail.
So, standing at the top of the slope, I once again slowed my breath and awakened all my senses. I centred, pointed my skis down the slope and skied. I stopped thinking about getting to the bottom and simply focussed on the present moment, this turn and the next.
When I got to the bottom I felt elated. Not only the best skiing I had done up to that point but for the whole run I hadn’t been aware of the burgeoning disturbance in my Central Nervous System (CNS).
I retired to the nearest café and within half an hour my symptoms slowly returned. I decided to withdraw into meditation for the afternoon to see if I could kick this migraine while my daughter and partner returned to the slopes.
Adjusting my posture again, my breath slowed as I relaxed through my body and withdrew my focus from the outside world. I brought my attention to my brain and consciously created space with my inhalation and softened my attention with my exhalation. Then went inside the pain, focussing on dissolving the inflammation with my breath.
This is how the next hour and a half passed – sitting in a busy café in stillness, dissolving the pain and inflammation in my head with my breath. People came and went, I was aware of their conversation but my choice was to focus my attention inward. One of the terms we use to describe the state of meditation is relaxed alertness and this perfectly describes my mind state during this hour and a half.
By the time my daughter and partner returned my symptoms had diminished considerably. I felt relaxed and at peace. I was still very conscious of keeping myself centred with my breath and my posture but contrary to the predictable path of a migraine, my symptoms further reduced through the evening. I woke the next morning with a crystal clear central nervous system.
During the whole afternoon and evening, I had taken two paracetamol tablets. I took them after the worst symptoms had passed, more as a prophylactic against further symptoms occurring while I was walking around in the snow trying to find food.
Chronic pain conditions, including migraine, are costing our health systems millions of dollars a year – increasing prescription of powerful pharmaceuticals, lost productivity, increased mental health issues related to the experience of pain and the side-effects of pain medication.
Prescription pain medications are becoming an increasing cause of addiction and death across the US and Australia as doctors use stronger drugs and off-label prescriptions in a desperate attempt to manage escalating rates of chronic pain in our communities. Added to this is the increased risk of liver and gastrointestinal damage, cognitive damage and autoimmune conditions.
Patients want a life without pain and doctors want to provide a solution but as my story demonstrates, drugs are not the only solution.
I have arthritis, three prolapsed discs in my spine and Multiple Sclerosis and I occasionally take a couple of paracetamol when the pain is at its worse and I know I will need to function in the world – three health conditions involving chronic pain and a net cost to the public health system of…well…zero. And my practice not only helps my pain management but also manages my mental health, which directly benefits my family, further reducing cost to the communoty.
Mine is not an isolated story. My clients also report that the meditation and relaxation I teach is a much better pain management tool than conventional pharmaceuticals alone. Some clients combine meditation with pharmaceuticals, often reducing their dependence on pain meds and some have been able to stop their prescription medications altogether, keeping them around just in case.
Added to this anecdotal evidence is an increasing body of independent evidence from respected academic institutions to support an integrated medical approach to chronic pain management. Therapeutic Yoga, meditation, relaxation, tai chi, hypnotherapy, massage and acupuncture have all been shown to have an equal or better impact on patients’ experience of pain as pharmaceuticals.
Pain clinics are emerging in capital cities, offering a range of treatments for pain management (including mindfulness, massage and hypnotherapy) but too often these clinics are private and expensive, out of the reach of the average person. When the services are available through public health, they are usually funded for short courses which simply doesn’t support individuals developing a sustainable personal practice.
Imagine a trip to your local GP for pain and you leave with a prescription for mild pain meds and a referral to multidisciplinary clinic, offering meditation, relaxation, gentle yoga, tai chi, hypnotherapy, therapeutic massage and acupuncture. Everything designed to support the development of your own long term pain management practice.
This approach would not only help to manage your pain but would also support your whole wellbeing, mentally and physically. My story shows this is can be a reality if we personally and publicly take the leap.
Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit www.splendouryoga.com. Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.