How to Combat Fibro Fog and Get Your Brain Back in Gear: Keeping Your Brain Engaged

NB: This is the third in a four-post series about how to combat “fibro fog” and improve cognitive function. Post #1 examines fibro fog in its various manifestations and examines some possible causes. It also provides an overview of a three-phased approach to combating fibro fog that the remaining posts in the series will examine in more detail. Post #2 looks at improving sleep; this post outlines strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy; and post #4 will examine various coping mechanisms to deal with the fibro-fog effects that can’t be eliminated by the first two phases.

Phase Two: Keep Your Brain Sharp

Making time to engage in activities that keep your brain’s neurons firing in diverse ways is crucial to combating the effects of fibro-fog and to improving your brain health overall, which is important as we age.
The following activities are especially recommended as they call on different areas of intelligence and provide a comprehensive “brain fitness” program which can help beat back fibro fog and general brain dysfunction caused by aging as well.

Chess, Anyone?

I’m personally very excited about this discovery: chess is an amazing all-around brain booster when it comes to fighting fibro-fog! It may seem daunting if you’ve never played before, but my experience might be encouraging to you.

First, a bit of background about my own fibromyalgia history: I was diagnosed in early 2000. Thanks to a supportive doctor and my own willingness to take a fairly scientific yet assertive approach to management, was able to enjoy a fairly high quality of life for several years.

This was due to a complex, comprehensive treatment program I developed over the years that included restorative yoga, a diet rich in lean proteins and complex carbohydrates, several conservative “feel good” measures, and regular, but carefully monitored, doses of tramadol with acetaminophen.

Unfortunately, due to various severe stressors I experienced from 2007 on, my fibro got significantly worse, culminating in the horrifying discovery earlier this year (2009) that I was no longer able to practice my profession (law), primarily because of cognitive problems. That’s a scary feeling for anyone, and I admit I panicked at first.

I wish I could say I’m all better now, but I’m not. However, I have improved my brain function to a noticeable degree and one of the keys to this improvement, I’m convinced, is that I started learning to play chess.

Chess is a complex game of strategy, requiring players to think several moves ahead, and consider various game permutations in order to make the best tactical moves. The rules of chess are fairly simple but the way those rules play out in a real game can be mind-boggling! My theory is that this complex reasoning can be developed as one learns the game, and that this process must somehow “ignite” the faulty neurons that misfire in fibro fog.

I started with a program that came pre-loaded on my latest computer purchase, a Gateway laptop: Chess Titans. By setting the level to “1” (rank beginner), and refreshing my memory about the various rules of piece movement, I was able to engage in a few games and even managed to eke out a few “draws” (but no “wins”!) against the computer, which also played at a beginner level.

I did some research online at free websites (some of these are outlined in the resource list below), and educated myself on various maneuvers and openings. Then I made a cool accidental discovery: by setting Chess Titans to “new game against human being” I could take historic games, such as Game Thirteen of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship match, and play it out on the virtual board before me. By following the action along with written commentary about the moves — why this move was bold but that one was a blunder — I was able to improve my understanding about the game dramatically.

I’m still a rank beginner — after all, I’ve only been playing a few weeks — but I have noticed significant improvement in my mental capacity, especially in the area of deductive reasoning and, oddly, memory and retention. I play daily now, for a half hour or so. If that’s the price for better control over fibro-fog, it’s one I’m happy to pay — it requires little time, and it’s fun, to boot — especially now that I’m starting to win a few games!

Sudoku: The Numbers Game

Sudoku became something of a craze awhile back, and it’s been highly recommended by neurologists and researchers as an excellent way to maintain brain fitness against the natural decline of the aging process. It’s also a great way to exercise a different area of the brain in the fight against fibro fog.

Playing number games like Sudoku doesn’t just improve your math skills. Interestingly, perhaps because it requires you to reason out ahead of time, much like chess, it can also improve overall cognition, in my experience.

You can find cheap Sudoku puzzle books in any drugstore or big box superstore, such as Walmart. You can also find online puzzle sites that offer free games, either for print or for playing online.

Play That Funky Music

I’m not just suggesting you put on your favorite CD or load up your iPod. I’m saying “play an instrument” — and learn one, if you don’t currently know how to play.

There’s a huge resistance among many of a “certain age” against picking up a new instrument later in life. I understand the anxiety, believe me. When I finally satisfied a life-long itch to learn the violin two years ago, I was surprised by the fact that there weren’t many resources out there for adults learning to play. I ended up with the “baby” Suzuki method books, which worked just fine but it would have been nice to have some more “grown-up” references available!

Anyone can learn to play an instrument with time and practice. Playing music is actually doubly beneficial. The music itself — the process of learning a piece and perfecting it — acts like aerobic exercise for cognition, but also the process of learning the instrument itself is powerfully helpful against fibro fog and general cognition decline.

So, even if it’s been awhile — or if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument in your life — give this some thought. Cheap student violins can be purchased online for as little as $50; you may be able to borrow your church’s piano for practice during times when no one’s using the sanctuary; you can even rent instruments from many music shops, if you want to give it a try but aren’t too sure about making an initial investment.

One thing I recommend from personal experience — i.e., my own mistakes: if you’re going to go to the trouble of learning a new instrument, invest in a few lessons from a qualified teacher who is supportive of older learners. Not every teacher is, so question them on that latter point! I dove into the violin without the aid of one-on-one lessons, using DVDs and online videos, and that was OK, but I think I could have gone much farther more quickly with the aid of a live instructor who could correct my form directly.

If you already know how to play, then purchase some music that’s a little more difficult than your current level of proficiency, and set aside time regularly to work on the piece.

Whichever you are — a total beginner, a returning student, or a lifelong musician — conquering an instrument and playing something you weren’t able to play before not only improves your brain fitness but it’s also a huge boost to your self-confidence!

In the next post, we’ll examine ways to cope with fibro fog’s cognitive malfunctions.

How to Combat Fibro Fog and Get Your Brain Back in Gear: Better Sleep = Functional Brains

NB: This is the second in a four-post series about how to combat “fibro fog” and improve cognitive function. Post #1 examines fibro fog in its various manifestations and examines some possible causes. It also provides an overview of a three-phased approach to combating fibro fog that the remaining posts in the series will examine in more detail. This post looks at improving sleep; post #3 outlines strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy; and post #4 examines various coping mechanisms to deal with the fibro-fog effects that can’t be eliminated by the first two phases.

Why We Start With Sleep Problems When We’re Combating Fibro Fog

Most experts agree that sleep is, if not the single cause of fibro fog, one of the largest contributing factors. Although fibromites can have wildly divergent experiences with this condition, one thing that almost all of us share in common is poor sleep and not enough of it.

As most of us who are parents learn when our children are infants, there’s a very good reason that sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique: it works! Inadequate rest can quite literally shut your brain down, increase confusion, deaden your reflexes, and create massive gaps in your memory and recall ability.

So, we start with improving our sleep in Phase One of this three-phrase approach.

Phase One: Address Your Sleep Issues First

Start by attacking the generally-agreed-upon root cause of fibro fog first: poor sleep. Begin by taking a week-long “read” of your current sleep patterns. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How long do you sleep at a time?
  2. How often do you reach waking consciousness during the night?
  3. How many times are you aware of moving in bed because of pain?
  4. What is your pain level when you go to bed compared to when you get up in the morning?
  5. What is your current nighttime pre-bed ritual?
  6. What did you have to eat and drink before bed, and how close to bedtime were these taken?

If you can arrange to perform this initial survey during a week when you don’t have to set the alarm to wake up, you’ll get more reliable results. But start with wherever you are and do the best you can.

Analyze Your Results

From your informal survey of your past week’s sleep patterns, you should now have a clearer idea of what your specific sleep issues are, whether that’s waking up too many times during the night, falling to sleep in the beginning, or sleeping long enough overall.

Now you can begin to adjust your sleep-related habits more effectively. I suggest trying each major adjustment one at a time for a week or so, before adding or trying another. This gives your body time to adjust to the new routine but also allows you to see which adjustment “did the trick” if you begin experiencing improved sleep.

Basic Sleep Hygiene

Begin by improving on some general “hygiene” habits that have been shown to improve sleep in terms of both quality and quantity. These suggestions include:

  • Lower the temperature in the room. Studies show we sleep best in cooler temperatures.
  • Experiment with pillows to provide support beneath and between knees, depending on your preferred sleep position, to ease pressure on the back.
  • Move all electronics out of the bedroom, save for an alarm clock if necessary. But turn the alarm clock away from the bed, to remove the temptation of looking at it when you have trouble falling asleep; this will only increase anxiety.
  • Leave at least three hours between your last meal or drink before bedtime. This can reduce the urge to urinate in the middle of the night, which might help your body stay in the sleep pattern, instead of waking to go to the bathroom.
  • Experiment with white noise or nature sounds to prevent waking due to household noises.
  • If you like to read before bed, watch what you read: eschew thrillers and tightly-plotted suspense novels for more literary or spiritually-themed books that you’ll be able to put down more easily. (I can personally recommend Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time!)
  • Try installing a home fragrance diffuser or air freshener with a lavender scent. Better yet, use lavender water to freshen your bed linens. Lavender has been shown in several studies to produce a relaxing, calming atmosphere.
  • Put up blackout curtains underneath your normal bedroom window coverings to block out all ambient outside light from streetlamps, full moons, and the sun in the morning.
  • Eliminate caffeine from your diet after 4 PM, or better yet, eliminate it altogether. Some people appear to be more sensitive to this drug than other people are, and by eliminating it completely, you can tell whether you’re one of those people. If your energy picks up dramatically during the day (an odd but not uncommon side effect for caffeine sensitives) and you fall asleep more easily at night, you’ll know to avoid caffeine in the future.
  • If you like to take a bath before bed, make certain the water is not too hot. Increases in body temperature can make falling asleep more difficult.

Should You Try Medication?

If all else fails, consider speaking to your doctor about medication to help you sleep. For fibromyalgia patients, these drugs can either be pain-relievers (if it’s the pain keeping you from attaining good rest) or sleep aids such as Lunesta and Ambien. Talk to your physician to determine whether one or both of these might be a useful addition to your treatment program.

While some are resistant to prescription drugs for fear of becoming addicted, the truth is that the real rate of addiction in chronic pain patients is pretty low.

The media doesn’t do much to assuage these baseless fears and in fact aids in the perpetuation of the chronic-pain-addict myth by confusing two very different concepts: addiction and dependence. Addiction is a psychological malady that is an unfortunate side effect of using pain medication for the wrong reasons; dependence is a perfectly normal and expected physical state that results from the proper use of such medications.

If you’re concerned about dependence, as opposed to addiction, your doctor should be able to reassure you and give you ways to keep your body from becoming dependent, if you’re steadfast about that. If you have reason to be concerned about addiction, then you should still talk to your physician because there may be non-habit forming alternatives you can try.

The bottom line is that sleep isn’t just a good idea or something you’d like to have more of: it’s absolutely crucial for everyone, but especially so for chronic pain patients, and maybe even more so for fibromyalgia patients. Why? It’s only during restful, deep sleep that our muscles can heal.

So, whether you decide to try medication, or decide against it, that’s an extremely personal choice. But whatever you do, don’t give up on the quest for a good night’s sleep. It’s that important.

In the next post in this series, we’ll examine strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy.

How To Beat Fibro-Fog and Get Your Brain Back in Gear (Part 1 of 4)

NB: This is the first in a four-post series about how to combat “fibro fog” and improve cognitive function. This post examines fibro fog in its various manifestations and examines some possible causes. It also provides an overview of a three-phased approach to combating fibro fog that the remaining posts in the series will examine in more detail. Post #2 will look at improving sleep; post #3 outlines strategies to keep your brain challenged and healthy; and post #4 examines various coping mechanisms to deal with the fibro-fog effects that can’t be eliminated by the first two phases.

Fibromyalgia sufferers know all too well the agony the condition can cause — debilitating pain, sleepless nights, irritable bowel syndrome, and more. But of all the myriad, complex symptoms of fibromyalgia, probably the most frightening to many of us is the amusingly-named, but not so funny, “fibro fog.” Fortunately, there are many things we can do to combat fibro fog, if not outright eliminate it from our lives altogether.

What Is Fibro Fog, and What Causes It?

Before we examine the strategies to combat fibro fog, however, let’s take a short look at what it is and what may cause it.

Briefly, fibro fog can be used to describe just about any cognitive impairment that we might experience with fibromyalgia. Some common manifestations of this experience are:

  • Forgetting the right “word”
  • Misnaming common objects
  • Losing track of our thoughts as we’re speaking
  • Forgetting where commonly used items are
  • Struggling with new information
  • Difficulty retaining learned information

There are many variations on fibro fog, of course, because we all experience it in slightly different ways. However, despite the funny name, it’s not at all funny to suddenly forget a child’s name, or struggle with the appropriate word to describe an object we use every day. It’s downright frightening!

Fortunately, we know that this is not a psychological problem, nor is it a symptom (necessarily) of Alzheimers. (However, if you have reason to suspect it may be Alzheimers, it would be worthwhile to see a doctor about diagnostic tests to rule out this more serious condition.)

Most researchers attribute fibro fog to another of the most common fibro symptoms: sleep disturbance. In short, many believer that it’s our lack of high-quality, consistent sleep that leads us to become perpetually sleep—deprived, and it’s that sleep-deprivation in turn that causes the cognitive problems.

An Overview of the Three-Phase Approach to Combating Fibro Fog

Whether it’s lack of sleep alone or in combination with other factors operating in the fibromyalgia patient, there are specific strategies you can undertake today to combat fibro fog and get your brain back in working order. I recommend the following three-phased approach that focuses first on your sleep issues, and then on keeping the brain active and engaged.

In Phase One, we’ll look at what many believe to be the root cause of fibro fog: poor quality of sleep. I’ll suggest some strategies to improve both the quality and length of your nightly rest and suggest other resources you can explore for further assistance.

In Phase Two, I’ll outline several strategies you can adopt to keep your brain challenged and healthy. Exercising the “mental muscle” is crucial to keeping those brain neurons firing on “all four cylinders” so to speak; engaging in challenging mental activities can boost your cognitive function in significant and noticeable ways.

Finally, Phase Three consists of several tricks, tips, and mechanisms that help fibromyalgia patients cope with the effects of fibro fog that can’t be eliminated using the activities in the first two phases.

How to Be a Good Friend to Someone With Chronic Pain

Today’s post is aimed at a slightly different reader — not the fibromyalgia sufferer or any other chronic pain patient for that matter, but the friends of people with chronic pain.

The Gift of Friendship — The Challenge of Chronic Pain

I know it’s not easy being the friend of someone who’s in pain most or all of the time. You probably have a lot of mixed emotions about your friend’s new reality. You might be concerned for your friend’s prognosis. You may miss doing fun things together, or even resent how much of your friend’s time and attention her condition now consumes. You may even have some doubts about whether her health is really “that bad” — especially if she “doesn’t look sick.”

But you’re also in a wonderful position, in a way. You’ve got some objectivity, of course — the pain isn’t happening to you, so you can be an incredible source of guidance and feedback when it comes to trying new therapies or making adjustments to daily life. You’re also motivated by friendship and that means you’ve got compassion for your friend’s new challenges. That compassion is something all of us need from time to time, no one more so than a chronic pain sufferer.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth: How You Can Be a Good Friend to a Chronic Pain Sufferer

I asked some of my “fibro-friends” on Twitter what they thought about this question: “What piece of advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a better friend to someone struggling with chronic pain?” The responses I got were incredibly moving and may help you in your quest to be a better friend.

Just Listen, Even When It’s Hard

First, they said, it would help tremendously if you would just be there for us. Be a shoulder to cry on, listen to us rant and whine on occasion when the pain stops us from doing what we really long to do. It’s hard to listen to someone you care about who’s in pain, we know, but your presence really does help. We need people to listen to us — to hear our stories — and to hear us with compassion. That’s something you can do better than anyone else.

Send Us Good Information, But Beware of Claims of “Cures”

Second, we welcome your interest in our condition. Please do keep emailing us news clippings that you find about our condition. But we do have one request: ignore the ones that say we can be “cured” with one simple supplement, or readily available substance.

For most of us, there is no cure yet, although researchers are constantly at work on these conditions and we’re all hopeful. The most that we can hope for in the immediate future, however, is successful management of our symptoms. So, check out the source of that article you’re thinking of sending. If it’s a press release, you can skip it. If it’s a true news piece, send it on.

Understand What We’re Talking About When We Say “We Hurt”

Third: please understand that our pain is not like the normal, average everyday aches and pains that almost everybody endures as they get older. This stuff is potent pain of the highest magnitude, and it interferes with everyday life.

When a fibromyalgia patient says she hurts or is experiencing a flare, for instance, you can understand what she’s going through by remembering what it feels like to have the flu — not the stuff you call the flu when you’re really just not feeling well and don’t want to go to work, but the honest-to-goodness, kills-people-every-year influenza. Remember those deep-rooted widespread body aches? That’s what a flareup feels like, only it doesn’t go away with Tylenol.

The One Thing You Should Never Say to a Chronic Pain Sufferer

So, while it’s perfectly normal to think “Well, everyone hurts now and then …” — keep that thought to yourself, please.

We know everyone hurts — but not everyone hurts like we hurt, and when you say things like that, it just makes us feel (A) terribly alone and (B) that you don’t believe us, that you think we’re just malingering. Please trust me: we’re not hypochondriacs or malingerers. We hope for nothing more out of life than one more good day, one pain-free day, and, please God, a cure for what ails us.

Grace Us With Your Presence

Finally, please don’t forget about us. It’s going to be hard, we know. Especially when we’ve both lived with this condition for awhile, and you start to realize that there’s really not much you can do to make us feel better, and there’s not much we can do to rejoin life as we used to know it.

You’re going to start telling yourself, “Well, there’s nothing I can do to help. And I know she doesn’t want to or can’t go do __________ (whatever you’ve got planned for the day).” Then, the next thing you know, you’re not calling or emailing, and we haven’t seen each other in ages.

Please resist that temptation. Even if you know we can’t join you, it still feels good to be invited from time to time.

And even though, yes, you’re right, there’s not much you can do to make us feel better, there is one thing you can do — and that’s grace us with your friendship and your presence. Call and see if you can just drop by for a chat. Tell us about fun things you’ve been doing — even if we seem envious, we’re really happy that we can at least live vicariously through you! Keep us in touch with what’s going on out there in your world, because we do care about you, even though it seems sometimes as if all we can think about is our chronic pain condition.

We need friendship, just as much as we need good pain relief and a caring, competent doctor. We hope that our pain doesn’t scare you off, because your friendship does mean so much to us. Take us as we are, but please don’t forget that underneath all the new stuff that any serious health condition brings, it’s still us in there — the same friend who’s loved you and relished your love for years.

A Summertime Meditation to Relieve Chronic Pain

Here’s a simple little meditation that’s incredibly powerful at helping your body release chronic pain and heal itself. It draws on the power of two of summer’s most iconic elements: the sun’s rays and the ocean’s waves.

Why Meditation Coupled With Visualization Works To Relieve Chronic Pain

Many of us resist the advice to meditate when it comes to managing our chronic pain. Yet meditation can have profoundly beneficial physical effects when it comes to our body’s ability to heal itself. When you couple meditation with visualization — the practice of envisioning certain scenes or images — you can ramp up the healing power of meditation.

Why do we resist meditation? I think it’s because it “smells” like “it’s all in your head.” Yet the connection between the body and mind is just beginning to be understood in Western medicine. Studies have shown that our brains’ entrenched beliefs can and do have powerful impacts on our health; witness the many studies that show placebos often work, even if they’re nothing more than sugar pills.

Meditation works on so many levels. First, it relaxes your body physically. Especially with fibromyalgia, our muscles have “memories” that bring them back to a painfully tense state time and again. Meditation can retrain those muscles over time to relax, which can ease the pain levels tremendously. Secondly, it works to reduce overall physical stress levels, lowering the amounts of hormones that in large quantities wreak havoc with our body’s systems. Finally, it feels good — and we can all us as much of that as we can get.

Preparing to Meditate

You need no special training or equipment to meditate. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing (except driving a car!), you can meditate. But for the best results, try this meditation when you’re alone. You can be outside or inside, although outside would be very helpful for this particular meditation.

If you are lucky enough to have access to a beach, that’s ideal. But even if you can’t get to the ocean, you can bring the water’s healing powers to you, wherever you are. Look for a pool, or failing that, use a bathtub or even an indoor fountain.

Wear comfortable clothes (unless you’re in the pool or beach, in which case a swimsuit is best, or in the tub, in which case no clothing is necessary). Make sure you won’t be disturbed for half an hour or so.

If you’re using a tub, fill it with warm but not hot water. Add some Epsom or sea salt to the water, to make it as close to the real thing as possible. If you’re in a pool, float on your back if possible, or simply sit comfortably on a step in the shallow end, letting the water cover your feet and ankles. At the beach? Anywhere will do, but if you can move your chair, or just sit on the sand, in the surf, that’s ideal.

Lastly, if you’re outside, make sure you put on sunblock! We’ll be working with the power of the sun to heal — but we all know the sun’s rays can be dangerous to unprotected skin, too. So, lather the white stuff on, and make sure you hit the areas that we always forget — the ears, the tops of feet and toes, the scalp.

Ready?

The Summer Sun-And-Waves Meditation

Begin by relaxing your body. Focus your awareness on each part of your body, starting with your toes, moving up to your feet, your ankles, your calves, and so on, until you reach the top of your head. At each point, pause and gently (silently) tell that part of your body to relax. Continue up your body until you reach the top of your head. Relax your eyes, your mouth, your forehead, your scalp.

When you’re thoroughly relaxed, focus on the sound of the waves coming in and going out. If you’re not actually at the beach, that’s OK — just call that sound to mind. (If you have a CD or sound machine that can recreate waves, great! If not, just use your imagination and memory.) Just focus on the waves for several minutes.

Now, turn your awareness to the warmth of the sun beating down on your body. Again, even if you’re not outside, it’s OK — just visualize the sun’s rays enveloping your body in warmth. See them in your mind’s eye as golden rays of pure healing energy.

Now, begin to direct those rays in your mind’s eye to the parts of your body that hurt. One at a time, “move” the rays of golden light to target a painful area. Let the rays do their job — visualize them sinking in (only the good parts, of course — the sunblock’s taking care of the bad stuff) and working magic on the tissue, the fascia, the very cells that make up your painful muscles. After awhile, you’ll feel a distinct tingle in each area. That’s your cue that you can move on to the next painful area.

When you’ve moved the sun’s rays over every painful area, and felt that little tingle in each one, now it’s time to move on to the water portion. Bring your attention gently back to the waves — listen to the sounds of the waves coming in and going out. Really listen — note every single nuance in sound between the coming and the going until you can hear each difference distinctly.

Now, imagine that the ocean’s waves are bringing in health and wellbeing, and then they’re picking up all the bad stuff in your body that causes pain as they take that bad stuff back out to sea. Way out there somewhere is a magic well where all the “bad stuff” is deposited and transformed into healthful energy. The waves pick up that energy and bring it back in to you, in a never-ending cycle of healing. Stay with this image for as long as you can, feeling the waves bring you health and vitality and take away your pain.

After ten or fifteen minutes or so (or however long you wish to perform the meditation, mindful always of the need to reapply sunblock if you’re outside), bring your attention slowly back to your body and your surroundings. Slowly stretch, blink a few times, and massage your hands and shoulders to bring yourself back to full waking consciousness. You might feel like you just dozed off for a bit — and if you did, that’s great! Sleep heals, too. (Just make sure you don’t fall asleep in the sun without someone to rouse you in case you sleep too long.)

I’d love to hear your reactions to this meditation. Did you try it? Do you use a meditation or visualization sequence that’s different? Share it in the comments!

The Breakfast Incident (An Excerpt from Euston Arch’ Guide)

Every so often, interspersed with the “how to” tips and advice on handling chronic pain and the posts where I shamelessly try to feed my kid via affiliate marketing (and for the love of God, please people, go buy something, will ya? She’s getting skinny), I’ll share an excerpt from my work-in-progress titled, shockingly enough, The Tramadol Diaries.  Unless specifically stated otherwise, I advocate trying NOTHING in these posts as a means of dealing with your own chronic pain (especially without talking to your doctor first). Except the humor. That definitely works. Hey, it’s either laugh at yourself or cry, right? And crying makes me look ugly…

The Breakfast Incident

It started the weekend after I learned I was pregnant with The Princess. November, 1998. I remember sitting in a tony country club, having breakfast with my mother, brother, and husband, and shifting uncomfortably in my seat, painfully aware of the searing burning sensation running down the back of my left leg.

My brother, Tom, was being his usual sarcastically funny self. I honestly don’t remember what he said that set me off — something benign, because he’s never mean, and I usually take it and dish it right back with affection.

This time, however, something snapped. “Don’t do that,” I said. Something in my face or my tone conveyed the seriousness I felt, because the look on his face said volumes. Surprise, alarm, confusion, tinged with a slight hint of fear — he was obviously thinking, “Oh shit. What did I say?”

He recovered enough to say, “Come on kiddo. I’m only teasing.”

“Don’t,” I warned him. And then — God, I hate this about me — the tears started to well up. Every damn time I get angry, I start to cry. And I never cry pretty. Oh, no. My crying face is red, splotchy, puffy, and just really, really fugly.

Now he was truly alarmed. “Sherrie,” he began (and he almost never uses my name — the name he and our other brother Jim gave me at birth) … but I cut him off.

“I’m not kidding. I hurt, I don’t feel good, and I’m a little scared about it all, so just DON’T,” I sniveled.

To his credit, he backed off immediately. But the incident is forever burned in my memory because it was the first time I admitted to myself that something was terribly, terribly wrong with me.

I was a month pregnant, at the age of 33. It should have been the happiest time in my life. I had no morning sickness at all (never did), and this baby was very much wanted by both my husband and me — to say nothing at all of my mother, who had always craved a grandchild but had all but given up hope of any of her ungrateful weirdo kids ever giving her one.

And yet, I had just acknowledged that I was in pain — a pain that had come on strong and fast, with no warning or apparent cause, and had not let up once in days. The mystery of it frightened me greatly because of the pregnancy. All I could think was, “Is something wrong with Princess?” (I knew even then it was a girl. I swear I did.)

Those days would turn into months, and then a full year, before I ever found out what was causing this debilitating pain, which never once ceased its perpetual torment.

Crocs = Footsie Heaven For Chronic Pain Patients — HUGE Sale On Now!

I know Crocs aren’t exactly high fashion, but dang, those things make my feet feel good. I don’t know about you guys but when my scoliosis-triggered leg nerve pain extends down into my feet, I just don’t want to get on them at all. It’s couch time for me.

But Crocs — while they don’t fix every problem, they certainly make life on my feet easier by leaps and bounds.

So, I was super excited to see this cross my inbox today:

Buy Two or More Pairs at Crocs.com and Get 50% Off! Offer ends: 6.22.09

(Remember – that’s an affiliate link. Costs you nothing, but helps me feed my kid!)

Half off. Yep, you read that right. A full 50% off all Crocs purchases when you buy at least two pair. But hurry, because the sale ends June 22nd. Grab ’em while you can! It’s not just one style either. You can buy Islanders, Ace Golf, Ace Boating, Athens, Kid’s Athens, Women’s Mary Janes and Girl’s Mary Janes, and any combination thereof — as long as you buy at least 2 pair, your purchase will be half-price.

These are great shoes for a walking program, by the way (and walking is one of the most recommended forms of exercise for chronic pain sufferers who are able to do some form of exercise).

Half off. Wow. Can’t beat that with a stick, even on my good days!

Feel Better Fast With Six of My Favorite Homedics Products (Plus – Save Some Dough!)

As I’ve written before, I am a big believer in better living through chemistry, as long as the chemistry is properly prescribed and taken as directed.

But there are times when you don’t want or need another pill — you just want to feel better. And I’ve found that Homedics is one of the best suppliers of “feeling better” — that sometimes-evasive quality known as “well-being.”

My Six Favorite Homedics Products for Chronic Pain Relief & Relaxation

Six of my favorite Homedics products are profiled below. Remember that all “To Buy” links are affiliate links — costs you nothing extra, but helps me feed my kid! And whatever you do, make sure you read this entire post before you buy anything! (Hint: there’s a little extra goodness in the last paragraph for you.)

Therapist Select Shiatsu Massaging Cushion With Heat

I have a slightly different version of this cushion in my desk chair and I can’t sing its praises enough. It really helps me maintain good posture and helps my muscles stay loose and avoid spasm when I’m working on a computer project for a long period of time. (Of course, we should all get up every hour or even more frequently to stretch and take a break, even with the cushion!)

To Buy:

Body Revitalizer Massage Mat With Heat

This amazing product is like a combination of the seat cushion and a yoga mat. I’ve tried this, but don’t own it yet (notice the “yet”!). Great for periods of destressing because it allows your body to extend and let its own weight assist with the relaxation process.

To Buy:

Therapist Select Hand Held Percussion Massager

This model includes heat and various attachments that help relax sore muscles. Particuarly useful for fibromyalgia patients.

To Buy:

Shiatsu Massage Pillow

This pillow is ideal for any part of the back, says Homedics. I’ve found it works particularly well with the lumbar region (the lower back area). It comes with a rotating massager and heat, and actually molds itself to your body’s contours, which is awesome. Use alone or in combination with the massage chair cushion for extra benefits. The pillow was marked at $59.99 but a little birdy tells me it’s only $40.85 right now.

To Buy:

Envirascape Illuminated Rock Garden Relaxation Fountain

Another product that really helps me create a more centered, peaceful environment — which helps me heal by managing overall stress levels — is this gorgeous lighted rock fountain. It’s not that hard to set up — just follow the instructions carefully. Make sure you use the mat that comes with it to avoid water stains on your furniture!

To Buy:

Sound Spa Relaxation Sound Machine

I have an earlier version of this beauty, but for only $19.99, I’m very tempted to upgrade. The sounds of nature will give a nice soothing background for meditation or relaxation exercises. Best of all, it helps you sleep by masking out unwanted ambient noises that can jar you out of that much-needed healing sleep cycle.

To Buy:

Psst: Want A Coupon Code, Too?

And the best news of all: Amazon is offering a cool $10 discount on all Homedics equipment purchases of $99 or more, this month with the coupon code HOMEJUN9! Just enter that code when you checkout, after clicking on the links above. You’re welcome.

“A Blessing, Not a Tragedy”: How Changing Your Perspective on Chronic Pain Opens Your World

Rose Colored Sunglasses

earicicle came out of the closet this week. Not as a gay person — as a chronic pain/CFS survivor.

Who is earicicle? (What a great name, by the way.) This is earicicle — a commenter at DailyKos.  In a touching, extremely inspiring post titled “i lied. earicicle’s confession. And celebration“, she comes clean with her story as a CFS patient for over 20 years.

Then, she writes:

Last October, I read a sentence here at dKos that took my breath away.

I have decided to celebrate this anniversary as a blessing and not a tragedy.

It was from a diary by Iraq War veteran Broken Skull:How an IED got me to vote. (I got blown up 5 years ago today).

I was injured in Mosul, Iraq when an improvised explosive device (IED) sent shrapnel into my brain.  Throughout the last five years, things could have gone one way or the other, from possibly not living through the initial blast to not ever becoming a functioning member of society.  It has been a long tough fight and it has never been easy.  I have fought every step of the way, sometimes fighting myself and loved ones along the way.

Broken Skull’s diary shook me to the core. Because I also remember wondering if I was going to live or die. If I would ever become a functioning member of society again. I remember fighting every day. Fighting for miniscule things that no one ever saw. It sometimes took hours to gather my strength so I could walk ten feet from my bed to the bathroom. Because that was something I was determined to do on my own, even if it meant crawling there on my hands and knees.

I wrote down his simple sentence: “I have decided to celebrate this anniversary as a blessing and not a tragedy.” I looked at it again and again as this 20-year mark loomed.

Broken Skull, you made me DETERMINED to celebrate and not to mourn. Until I read your diary, I think that I had been quietly losing a battle within myself. . . . I survived, when others haven’t.

This is a powerful piece of writing, and I can only encourage everyone to go read it, in full, right now. It got me thinking — as the best writing always will — about my own attitudes towards my illness(es) and, especially here lately, the growing impact on my quality of life, the things I can do, my relationships, my self-esteem.

I have always been a positive person. Annoyingly Pollyanna-ish, some would say. I actually get irritated with the naysayers and the whiners — really irritated. The upside of this character flaw, however, is that for most setbacks, I can count on a very short “downtime” before I’m right back up again, in problem-solving, “cheerfully optimistic because everything always works out” for me mode.

Lately, however, with the worsening of both  of my main conditions — the nerve pain resulting from the spinal curvature, and the fibromyalgia symptoms — I’ve felt myself slipping away from the light into the cold, clammy darkness of fear and the unknown. Gone is my habitual sunny optimism. Instead, I find myself swimming in unknown waters — waters of fear, of hopelessness, of overwhelm, and yes, even of rage and howling indignation.

For the first time in my life, I think, I actually asked the question “Why did this happen to me?” Followed closely by another first — well, since childhood, anyway: “It’s NOT FAIR!”

What I do know, however, is that we choose our thoughts. We may feel as if they’re chosen for us but we know deep down that’s not true. And our feelings are nothing more than our reactions to our chosen thoughts. Change your thinking, change how you’re feeling. It’s not easy, but it is that simple.

So, lately, I’ve had to re-exercise those hope muscles. Those feelings of positivity aren’t coming naturally anymore — they need some help, at least for now. I’m trying to tell myself repeatedly these things:

  • I am alive, and that is something to be wildly grateful for.
  • I will not die from this.
  • I am stronger than this.
  • I am MORE than this.
  • I know how to help myself.
  • Getting well is important. There is nothing MORE important, really.
  • I am doing my best.

Will it work? Will I get my easy, naturally sunny and positive disposition back? Will Pollyanna return, or is she forever banished? I hope she’ll be back. All things being equal, it’s a lot easier to deal with setbacks when you’re not drowning in a sea of hopelessness. But maybe when she does return, she’ll have matured a little bit from the experience. Maybe she’ll have a touch more compassion for those who can’t see the light that she sees.

Pain Relief That Works: Eight Products That Relieve Chronic Pain Effectively

Why Try Conservative Measures for Chronic Pain When You’ve Got Prescription Pain Medication?

Even though this site is called “The Tramadol Diaries” — and even though I’m an unabashed supporter of better living through (appropriately prescribed and carefully monitored) chemistry — I recognize that there are people out there living with chronic pain who choose not to pursue prescription pain medication, for various reasons.

Additionally, even for those of us who do take regular doses of prescription pain meds, we still experience the occasional breakthrough pain. Then, too, sometimes we just want to take a break from all of the pills.

Conservative Treatment’s Place in a Comprehensive Pain Management Program

For all of us, there is still effective pain relief available. Remember that I went a solid four years on conservative treatments before I took anything stronger than an Aleve. To this day, I also rely regularly on an arsenal of conservative treatment options to round out my treatment protocol, and keep my fibromyalgia pain at bay sufficiently to enjoy some measure of quality of life.

Each of the following products is one I’ve used consistently over the last several years, am personally familiar with, and can (and do) personally vouch for in terms of efficacy. Simply put: they work, every single one of them.

Caution: Nothing Relieves Every Pain, All the Time

Now, that’s not to say there’s any kind of guarantee that they’ll all work for every person who tries them. Depending on your particular condition, and the specific pain it produces, certain products might work better for you than others, which may produce little or no benefit at all.

It’s all trial and error, unfortunately. I wish there were a better way, but until someone invents a 100% effective treatment that works on all pain, all the time, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

How to Give New Conservative Pain Treatment Products a Fair Trial

So, try the ones that appeal to you, and use them for at least two to four weeks, to give each product a fair trial. I encourage you to keep notes of each trial in your wellness log (more on wellness logs can be found in this post, in item #4). Note when you try each product, how long or how much of the product you used, and what the results were.

You might also want to keep track of the time of day you use the products. I’ve found that some things work better for me in the morning, and some later in the day when my muscles are more warmed up.

Analgesic/Pain Relief Products Applied to the Body

Tiger Balm

For muscle soreness and pain, nothing will beat a good self-massage with the king of all analgesic rubs —
Tiger balm. While this is an intense formulation for some, it truly gets deep into the tissue and creates a tingling warmth that works for a significant period of time to relax and relieve twinging, spasming muscles.

For best results, I suggest either taking a warm shower or bath, or applying a hot wet washcloth to the area you plan to massage the balm into. Let the heat from the water do its thing for awhile, loosening up the muscles and preparing the skin to absorb more of the balm. Then rub a small amount into the area, using as much pressure as you can create and withstand to give yourself a self-massage while the balm works its magic.

To Buy: Tiger Balm Pain Relieving Ointment, Non-Staining, Ultra Strength, 0.63 Ounces (Pack of 2) (Amazon.com)

Eucalyptus Oil

I first came across eucalyptus oil spray in the local mall. One of those standalone kiosks that the mall rents out every so often – your mall probably has them too. I was skeptical, to say the least. But we had a half-hour to kill before the movie started, and my feet were absolutely killing me. I had plantar fasciitis — an extremely painful inflammation of the fascii tissue in the bottom of the foot, that makes every step pure torture.

The salesman offered a free demo, and it was one of those “What have you got to lose?” moments for me. I let him put a heated rice bag on my foot for five minutes (which itself felt pretty wonderful), then he sprayed the oil directly on the foot, and massaged it in.

Within five minutes, the pain was literally gone, completely. No one was more surprised than I was. I purchased three bottles on the spot, but used them all up eventually and of course, the kiosk guy moved on. Haven’t been able to find any since.

However, there is another option from Bath and Body Works, in an aromatherapy formula. While it’s not the same formula, you can use it in the same way and it seems to be just as effective as those first bottles I bought in the mall.

To Buy: Bath & Body Works Aromatherapy Eucalyptus Spearmint Relax Smoothing Oil 4 fl oz (Amazon.com) (note: they seem to be out of stock at Amazon.com, but you can probably get it at the Bath & Body Works store, too; there also seem to be a few for sale on eBay.)

Bed Buddy: A Real Friend for Painful Parts

If you’ve never tried a Bed Buddy, allow me to be the first to say: what are you waiting for?! No, not that kind of bed buddy — although that has some interesting pain relief effects too … ahem.

Anyway: this particular Bed Buddy is a long tube filled with material that conforms to the shape of your body. You stick it in the microwave for a bit, wrap it around the affected area, and lie down for a nice relaxing rest.

Because it’s not plugged in to the wall, you can safely use this at nighttime while you sleep, without worrying about burning yourself as you do with an electric heating pad.

There’s a version for backs and one for sinus pain as well, which would come in handy for me right now. (I’m truly suffering with allergies. God figured fibro wasn’t enough? Sigh.)

To Buy: Carex Bed Buddy Back Wrap and Carex Bed Buddy Sinus Pack (Amazon.com)

Defying Gravity Works Wonders on Back Pain

This one’s not cheap, but worth every penny. I bought an inversion table a few years ago, on the theory that since my scoliosis essentially crams my vertebrae together like a pinched-together Slinky toy, hanging upside down for a few minutes a day might reverse the damage and create a little more space in there.

It works. That’s all I can say. It works.

Now, you won’t see relief immediately. This is one of those treatment options you need to stay with for awhile and do consistently before you feel better. The more consistently you do it, the better the results.

CAUTION: As with all treatments, but especially for inversion work, it’s essential that you talk to your doctor first. Make sure an inversion table routine won’t do more harm than good. But if the doctor gives you the go-ahead, an inversion table is a worthy investment in your overall back health.

To Buy: There are several good options on the market. I like this one, as it’s not as pricey as some models out there but seems to be fairly sturdy construction — Stamina Gravity Inversion Table (Walmart.com)

Pillows For Better Body Alignment While You Sleep

I discovered the joy of the body pillow during my pregnancy with Kayleigh, my daughter. I suffered from severe sciatica throughout all nine months from a ruptured disk (that was later diagnosed and fixed through surgery). It made good rest almost impossible until I found these two wonderful inventions.

Body Pillow

The body pillow is basically a pillow that’s roughly the length of your body, more or less. This one’s a good 50″ in length, so it fits most heights. Curl up next to it, sleeping on your side, and the memory foam will essentially “remember” your body’s contours, supporting you where you most need it.

To Buy: 50″ Memory Foam Body Pillow (Walmart.com)

Leg Spacer Pillow

Used in conjunction with the body pillow, the memory foam leg spacer pillow can create the perfect side-sleeping body alignment for chronic pain sufferers or anyone, really. It looks weird, but fitted between your knees while you’re on your side, the pillow creates the perfect amount of space to keep your spine aligned.

Why it’s important: Without the proper amount of resistance and space between your legs, your spine essentially misaligns while you sleep, creating undue pressure on the lumbar area which can lead to increased pain in the morning and a significantly lower quality of sleep. Sleep, as you know, is the number one most important healing tool in our arsenal, as that’s when our bodies do their best self-healing.

To Buy: Memory Foam Leg Spacer Pillow (Walmart.com)

Massage Chair Cushions For Your Back Pain

I used to laugh at these cushions when I saw them being demonstrated in the malls (beside the eucalyptus oil). I don’t laugh anymore!

The larger design can fit most office chairs. As do many chronic pain sufferers, I do my work from home at the computer. Sitting for any length of time leads to stiff muscles and increased pain, but these cushions can help alleviate that cycle, making it possible for me to work for slightly longer stretches of time.

But please know that no cushion is going to counteract the effects of bad posture, improperly aligned chairs and desks, bad wrist positioning, and the lack of frequent stretch breaks away from the computers. Use the cushion in conjunction with good ergonomic design and posture practices, and you’ll definitely see a difference.

To Buy: Two versions are available that I particularly like.  I use the longer one in my office chair, and the smaller one goes with me into the living room. Some models also have car charger adapters, that let you plug the device into your car’s cigarette lighter — great for long road trips! The Homedics SBM-200H Therapist Select Shiatsu Massaging Cushion with Heat is a full size version from Homedics and is available at Amazon.com; the  Healthometer Shiatsu Halk Back Cushion Massager is a smaller version and is available from Walmart.com.

Bath Salts CAN Help Relieve Chronic Pain!

Recently on Twitter I had an exchange with a friend of a chronic pain patient who had been venting about the lack of medical support she was receiving from her community.  I had made some suggestions designed to help him help his friend start taking care of herself.

One of the suggestions was to take a warm bath with epsom salts and spend some quality time sending loving thoughts to the hurting parts. The friend dismissed this as woefully inadequate. But, as I explained to him, this practice is essential for chronic pain sufferers.

It’s really simple: when we as chronic pain patients are not getting support from our medical doctors, we tend to sink into ourselves and feel hopeless, when we most need to start giving ourselves the support we’re looking for from others.

In giving this advice, I wasn’t diminishing his friend’s pain, or condoning the actions of her physicians, but merely advocating that when we as patients begin to take responsibility for giving ourselves the support and care we need, it has a way of evoking that support from others, over time.

More importantly, though, it helps us heal – and I firmly believe that.  By telling our bodies, essentially, that we love them, that we are grateful for their endurance in the face of so much adversity, that we treasure them even though they hurt so badly, we send the signal that our health and wellbeing is the most important thing, and the body has a funny way of responding positively.

Try it yourself right now. Think of the part of you that hurts the most at this moment. If you’re feeling good, think of whatever part hurts most often. Got it? For me it’s my lower left lumbar region.

Now, let that part of you have it. Talk out loud if you can, and insult the hell out of that part of you for hurting. How dare it hurt you so badly? Who the hell does it think it is? It SUCKS! And so forth …

Next, change your body’s position. If you were sitting, try standing or lying down. Do some light stretches — anything to change your body’s physical state.

Now try talking to it nicely. Tell that part of you that you love it. Say things like “I am so grateful for you. No matter how much it hurts, you are there for me, doing your absolute best to keep me going. I appreciate you.” It sounds silly, but just keep talking this way for a few minutes.

Notice how you feel after the loving self-talk. I’ll be willing to wager that there is some positive difference — maybe not a lot, but enough to be noticeable.

Imagine if every time you usually think negative things about your pain-ridden body, you stopped immediately and started saying wonderful, loving, supportive things about it.

Imagine doing this for weeks, for months. Imagine soaking your body in love, basically, every day.

A particularly effective way to try this positive self-talk approach is to do it in a warm bath, to which you’ve added soaking bath salts designed to loosen and relieve sore muscles. The combination of the warm water, the salts, and the positive meditation truly create a relaxed physical state, allowing your body to heal itself more effectively.

To Buy: One bath salts product I think is particularly effective is the Sore Muscle Therapeutic Mineral Bath Salt (Amazon.com).

Gentle Yoga for Every Body

Finally, I can’t recommend highly enough that everyone (with your doctor’s OK, of course) try restorative yoga at least once in your life.

This isn’t the action-packed flowing yoga you probably think of when someone suggests yoga for pain relief, by the way. This is a whole different animal altogether.

Restorative yoga is all about props — pillows, bolsters, rugs rolled up and placed underneath body parts to support your weight as you relax into very gentle, very easy asanas (or poses) in a particular sequence designed to truly relax every muscle in your sore, pain-addled body.

Particularly effective right before bedtime (perhaps even right after that relaxing positive-talk bath?), a few minutes of restorative yoga can work a world of difference in your pain levels, especially when practiced consistently over time.

To Buy: There are many good DVDs out there with restorative practice sequences. One I can recommend wholeheartedly is the Deborah Donohue Restorative Yoga Practice DVD (Amazon.com).

Final Tips: How to Get the Most Out of Conservative Pain Treatments

Finally, let me leave you with these suggestions to help your conservative treatments work more effectively.

  1. Don’t expect miracles. By and large, conservative treatments will not be as effective as serious pain meds. Don’t go into a particular treatment option with the expectation that it will work so well that you’ll be able to stop taking your tramadol or percocet or whatever.
  2. Conservative treatments are about management. Keep that in mind as you try new things.
  3. Give any new conservative treatment at least a few weeks before giving up on it. Some treatments require more time. Be consistent in your approach.
  4. Try just one new thing at a time. This way you’ll know what’s working if you experience measurable relief.
  5. ALWAYS talk to your doctor first!