Treating the Emotional Side to Chronic Pain

Miriam Gauci
Written by Miriam Gauci

Why I Became a Pain Coach

It all started with a shoulder injury, attributed to an intense rock climbing session. The pain was dull, at times intense, at other times barely noticeable. I wasn’t at all worried. In fact, I was rather intrigued about going to physiotherapy for the first time in my life, especially since the therapist turned out to be extremely charismatic.

But two months down the line, my shoulder still hadn’t improved. The therapist hinted at a tear, and expressed his doubts about my ever being able to climb again. That’s when things started to turn sour. I tried to climb anyway, but my shoulder felt blocked and it hurt – a lot. It continued to radiate pain at random intervals throughout the day and night. Months later, I paid over $800 to have an MRI, so that I could get diagnosed with a HAGL lesion – a type of ligament rupture that can only be fixed through surgery.

Surgery booked, I saw another physiotherapist for a change of scene. She, as well as my appointed surgeon – reputedly the best in the country – expressed doubts as to whether my HAGL lesion was the real cause of pain. The surgeon said he could indeed fix it, but it would not guarantee that I’d be rid of the pain. What he meant was that the tear may have been an incidental finding – an ‘imperfection’ in my body which in itself, does not cause pain. That drained most of my remaining hope away, yet today I am very grateful for that surgeon’s honesty!

And then, a week before the surgery, I woke up with an intense pain in my legs. So intense, I could barely walk. It was as if all my leg muscles were in spasm. Panicked, I cancelled the surgery because I felt I couldn’t handle both problems at once (and because a small voice inside myself had started whispering to me that surgery was not the solution!).

The pain in my legs did not subside, despite a steroid injection and an intense physiotherapy regime (with a different, equally charismatic, physiotherapist). Instead, a few weeks later, nerve pain in both hands and arms was added to the mix. I stopped working and applied for a disability benefit because I couldn’t even type or sit down without intense pain, and started to despair and believe that there was something more serious.

But I also started to ask questions. Such as, why did the physiotherapist blame my leg pain on lack of flexibility, muscle weakness and a flat foot, when in reality, there were so many people out there who were much less fit than me, who didn’t do any exercise at all, ate whatever they liked, weighed triple my weight, and yet, were completely pain free? I put this question to the therapist, and he admitted that he did not know.