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To be honest with all of you, I rarely listen to podcasts.
Books are such a huge source of entertainment to me that I simply don’t have a lot of time left over for other things, but I am open to changing that under the right circumstances.
One of the few exceptions to this rule is Tell Me About Your Pain. It’s a podcast about living with chronic pain and the latest evidence-based information on how best to treat it and to live with it.
(For anyone who might be new to the Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge or to my site in general, I have episodic migraines).
I’m still quite new to this show, but I appreciate the fact that the people who run this podcast are so conscientious about only recommending treatments that have a strong scientific basis for their claims.
One of the things I’ve learned from my illness is that most of us will do anything to find relief and a very small percentage of humans out there will take advantage of that desperation to sell “treatments” that are ineffective or, even worse, might actually cause other health problems or exacerbate your current ones.
Due to this, I’m cautious about who I listen to when I seek out complementary treatments for my migraines that might work well with the new treatment regiment my family doctor put me on a few months ago. I don’t want to upset the delicate balance that can happen when you finally find a routine that helps.
This podcast is an excellent one if you also happen to have a chronic illness that causes pain or if you simply want to get a peek at how some of your friends and loved ones deal with this sort of thing.
if anyone reading this knows a lot about podcasts and would like to make some recommendations, I’d love to hear about anything that’s related to science, books, art, or history! It’s wonderful to learn more about the world.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any medical conditions. Please consult with a medical professional if you need medical advice. I’m simply writing about my own experiences here.
The first multi-day tension headache I remember experiencing happened at age seven or eight soon after my family moved to Wyoming. Our house was small and comfortable but rarely quiet due to the simple realities of how trailer homes are constructed and the fact that two adults, three young children, and a small assortment of mischievous pets shared that cozy two-bedroom home.
Ordinarily, the overlapping, never-ending conversations, barks from our excitable dog, clangs from the kitchen, and other noises didn’t bother me as a child of that age, but I did wish for quieter corners of the globe when my head pounded for days in a row. What I had instead were cold wash cloths on my forehead and the stillness that comes from lying down and waiting for all of our home remedies to chase that discomfort away.
My life has changed in countless ways since then.
I’ve since learned that mild dehydration, caffeine, and stress are among my biggest triggers for these long-lived headaches.
But every once in a while, one of them still sneaks past my best prevention efforts.
This past weekend was my most recent experience with a stubborn headache that lasts multiple days.
Along with drinking extra water, getting more rest, and eating chocolate when taking over-the-counter pain medicine to help amplify their effects, mindfulness is another tool in my headache-busting toolbox.
Headaches can’t always be prevented, but I can have better experiences with them when they show up by remaining in the moment.
Less Tension, Less Pain
My headaches often spiral into a negative feedback loop of pain leading to tense muscles that in turn lead to more pain.
The best thing I can do when a new one begins is to relax my muscles as soon and as much as possible.
This is where mindfulness comes in. Whether I’ve undertaken a formal meditation session on that particular day or have simply decided to breathe in and out deeply and slowly, every ounce of relaxation matters.
Sometimes this looks like me lying down and closing my eyes for twenty minutes. While it can lead to a nap, sleeping isn’t the goal. Breaking that cycle is the goal.
A Distracting Walk
I know I talk about my love of long walks a lot on this blog, but this time I’m thinking of them as a type of distraction instead of a form of exercise.
Ideally, the walk would take place in a natural setting like a park or a beach, but it can happen on city streets as well. It’s generally slow and meandering instead of brisk.
The purpose of it is to gently pull my attention away from my discomfort and to anything else happening around me.
It could be the sight of two seagulls fighting over a french fry someone accidentally dropped or the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze.
Maybe a jogger will run by and I’ll take a moment to silently congratulate them on their good running form. The sun’s rays could shine down on my forehead and almost feel like a warm kiss from a loved one.
These sounds and sights wash over me. I acknowledge them but do my best not to dwell on them once they’ve passed. Responding to small moments like these is a nice reminder that headaches, too, will pass and that I shouldn’t spend time thinking about how long they’ve been going on or when they’ll end.
There’s something about this sort of distracting change of scenery that does a body good, especially when you’re in discomfort.
Living in the Moment
Patience is a skill I’ve honed nicely over the years.
While medication dulls the pain of a headache in the short term, this is one of those ailments that needs time to truly fade away. It can’t be rushed.
One of the beautiful things about taking a mindful approach to headaches is that it teaches you to sit with yourself in this exact moment.
There’s something freeing about doing what you can to alleviate the pain of a headache and then stopping and observing everything you’re experiencing in that moment without judging it.
Will mindfulness cure headaches? No, not in my experience, but it can make it easier to handle them when they pop up.
I woke up feeling stiff and sore one day last week. While I’m not still sure what caused it, it hurt to move my head in certain ways when I got up that morning.
A few years ago I experienced a more painful version of this injury after sleeping in an odd position, so this time I didn’t delay in following the home treatments that had worked so well back then.
It was better to treat it immediately than to do nothing wait for it to slowly get worse like it did last time.
The Cycle of Pain and Muscle Spasms
Here’s the problem with this kind of muscle strain: the pain, stiffness, and limited range of motion feed into each other in a cycle that can be tricky to break.
The pain made my muscles in my neck and shoulder tense up and spasm. This was even more true in the evening when I was tired and feeling more sore than I had when the day began.
My muscles contracting made the strain hurt even more because I didn’t have the full range of motion in that part of my body. Positions that felt good for my muscles could be uncomfortable for my spine, and vice versa.
Not having the full range of motion in my neck and shoulder also made it difficult to truly relax. It was hard to turn my head in certain ways, for example, and sleeping in some positions was simply impossible.
Consciously trying to relax is also hard to do in this situation because I was so focused on how uncomfortable I was feeling.
One of the first things I did for myself after taking some over-the-counter pain relief medication was to find my microwave-actived heating pad. It’s a piece of cloth that’s filled with magical little beads. I don’t know what the beads are made of, but they warm up beautifully and can be wrapped around any sore part of a body. I especially enjoy the gentle pressure that this heating pad provides since sitting or lying in certain positions were simply not happening for me at that point.
The medicine and heating pad were temporary fixes, though. What I really needed to do was to break the cycle of tension and pain.
That’s where meditating came in very handy. While the heating pad and medicine were doing their work of temporarily making me feel better, I opened up my meditation app and started using a session in it called “Body Scan.”
“Body Scan” is a guided meditation program that begins with asking you to focus on your breathing. After you’ve done that for a minute or two, it has you methodically relax every single part of your body beginning with your scalp and working your way down your body until even your toes have gotten some attention. If you feel any sensation in a part of your body, you’re supposed to take note of it without labelling it as good or bad.
This is a lot harder to do than you might imagine when the sensation in that area is objectively painful! It is an important part of the process, though.
I’d never thought I’d spend so much time thinking about everything from my ears to my fingers to the small of my back, but it really does work if you focus on the speaker’s voice and follow her instructions.
This wasn’t a quick fix. With that being said, it did help me to relax some tense muscles that really needed to be soothed.
Time is by far the biggest healer of injuries like this, of course, but I also noticed another feedback loop developing that was much more positive than the first one.
Every time I meditated, my muscled relaxed a little more than they had in the previous session.
As they relaxed, my pain levels dropped even after I cut back or fully stopped using medication and only relied on heating pads for relief.
As my pain levels dropped, I was able to move my head in ways that had been difficult the day before.
As my range of motion slowly improved again, my muscles spasmed less.
I have no idea how – or even if – this would work for more severe or longterm types of pain. It was a nice bit of relief for a temporary injury, though, and I was very grateful for it once I got into the habit of meditating more than once a day during he duration of this injury.