Get Moving: Tips to Keep You Walking When You Have Chronic Pain
Keeping Active With Chronic Pain
In January of 1995, I woke up one night and my left foot was paralyzed. I was in excruciating pain. 24 hours later, the episode had passed almost as if it had never happened.
For another year, I went from doctor to doctor. I had five different diagnoses. I was fitted with orthotics and special braces. I took an MRI. I took blood tests. I bought special shoes. And, I kept having episodes like the first one. Then it started to happen in my right foot. Doctors kept looking at my feet, but they couldnât figure out what was going on. I was told to live with it.
Then an orthopedic surgeon agreed to see me. He was with me five minutes when he noticed that my feet were really hot. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was experiencing flares. At 31 years old, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthrits and ankylosing spondylitis.
It's tough to keep active when you're in pain. It hurts to move, so why bother? If you suffer from arthritis or another similar disease, did you know that not moving can cause you as much pain as moving? I learned the hard way. This is the story of how I got myself moving again.
My Life Shattered
I struggled through as best I could for the next five years. I was plagued with fatigue and pain every hour of the day.
In 2001, I gave up. I simply could not fight this fight any more. I quit working and spent many months resting. I tried to find some sense of balance in my life.
It took me more than a year before I accepted my limitations. Then, I had to figure out how to enjoy the rest of what I had.
My Living Hell
I was sent to a rheumatolgist, a doctor who specialized in these types of disease. I followed his instructions. I rested and I stopped moving. He told me there wasn't anything I could do. Again, I would just have to live with it.
My world shrank. I flared at least once a month. I hobbled around on crutches during the worst of it. I could no longer walk to the BART trainwhich took me to and from work. I couldn't take my nieces and nephews to the park. I couldn't walk to the shopping mall. I couldn't even walk to the corner without pain radiating up through the soles of my feet. I was sore and I was tired. I went to work, I came home, I ate dinner, and I nodded off at 7pm. This was so not me! I'm a night owl. But, my body was plum tired.
I sat around most of the time. The less I did the less I was able to do. I began envisioning myself in a wheel chairat 40 years old in a wheelchair. It scared me to death.
There are easy ways to exercise
I know. It's not easy getting those creaky joints moving again. Exercise, at first, can be more painful than the disease. The Arthritis Foundation puts out some excellent DVDs that show you how easy it is to exercise. They are designed so that you can follow them even if you have to sit down to do the exercises.
These DVDs are made especially for people who have trouble moving. You will see that they include people with different levels of ability--even those who must sit to exercise. I found the guidance in this video helpful and encouraging. It's so easy to lose one's motivation especially when it hurts to move.
The Stress Free Exercise DVD is a great place to start. It offers easy, step by step instructions for gentle exercise no matter your abilities. The Tai Chi for Arthritis DVD is another good one, though I recommend this after you've exercised for a bit. It does have the same concept of different levels for different abilities, but you do need a bit of coordination to start with.
It may be painful to exercise. It's a lot more more painful to not exercise.
Ask Your Physician First
If you have any questions or worries about starting an exercise regimen, consult your doctor. Most people can start a simple exercise plan, but individual limitations may need to be considered before you get moving.
Once you have clearance, start slow. If all you can do is 5 minutes, that's a great start!
Getting Back On My Feet
A couple months after my "live with it" treatment, I said "To heck with this!" (Okay, I may have used stronger language.) I got an appointment with another rheumatologist.
This guy had a whole different perspective on joint pain. When I told him my fears about becoming wheelchair bound, he listened. When I asked him if there was anything I could do, he said "Absolutely!"
He signed me up for several weeks of physical therapy. I went through two sessions a week where I learned simple exercises so that I could get my range of motion back. I had exercises to do at home. If you've ever gone to physical therapy, you know that it only gets worse before it gets better.
I worked with a balance board, moved my feet in rice and then beans. I worked with exercise bands. I eventually worked up to using the exercise bike.
A friend sent me some hot pepper lotion which helped keep the inflammation in my feet down. Then, a co-worker gave me a tube of Biofreeze, which got rid of the soreness in my neck and shoulders. I also learned about contrast baths and using ice packs.
I had a long road ahead of me. But, I was moving again--even if it was very slowly!
A Plan of Action
One day around my birthday, I noticed I was thinking about my disability in different terms. Instead of despairing over what I had lost, I was telling myself that this may be the best it will be. What was I going to do about it? I put the challenge out there.
I made the decision to live whatever life I could with arthritis. It meant giving up something things and figuring out how to do somethings differently. It meant accepting that the affects of arthritis would always be with me.
So, I set myself up a plan. I started daily range of motion exercises to keep my joints moving. You may not realize that your joints have synovial fluid in them. If you don't move around, this fluid freezes up causing stiff joints that eventually freeze up.
I also started by walking in the backyard. Close enough that if I hurt myself I could get back in the house. It wasn't much, but eventually I could do two 10 minute session. My theory is some exercise is better than none at all.
I followed my plan every day. After many months, the muscle cramps in my feet came as lesser intervals. My fingers stopped flaring on a daily basis. My head seemed clearer because I was getting some fresh air.
I was moving again.
You aren't going to run marathons on day one. If you haven't moved in awhile, it's going to take time to get rid of the rust.
Start with 5 minutes. When that is comfortable, move up to 8 or 10. If you increase your time slowly, you won't experience as much pain or set backs. It isn't going to be easy at first, so take it slow.
While physical therapy put me in better shape, I still had a lot of pain in my ankles and feet. My physical therapist tried this and that to no avail. She began to suspect that I was holding back in fear of pain. Maybe...just a little. But, that wasn't the problem.
One day at work, I was sitting in my chair and I noticed that I never put my feet flat on the ground. Ever. When I tried, it hurt like crazy.
I went back to the physical therapist with this information. She ran me through some exercises which confirmed what I suspected. My muscles and tendons had shortened. While I was trying to stop myself from feeling pain by resting, I was inflicting more harm on my body by weakening it!
I learned an important lesson that day. The pain from not moving can be just as bad as the pain from moving! I had to make a decision on which way I wanted it. I could have pain and rest or pain and movement. Eventually, I chose the latter.
It's another decade and I'm not in a wheelchair
It's almost been 20 years since since my diagnosis. It might surprise you to find that I'm not in a wheelchair. I haven't even had joint fusion surgery. I stuck to my plan and it worked. Oh, my doctors think I'm some sort of miracle. Evidently, you need cartilage for your feet to work properly. Don't tell my feet!
I'm not going to lie to you. It isn't like I'm running all over town. I can't run period. 5 minutes of standing is my limit. I use plastic cups because I've broken more glasses than I'd like to count. I can't write more than a sentence or two before my fingers ache.
So, how is my life better? Because I kept exercising, my pain level has reduced. I have joint pain, but I don't have weak muscle pain. I recover a little more quickly from overuse and bad days. I can take my dog for a short walk a day without too much discomfort. I can enjoy a family gathering much more because I'm not in pain. I've learned how to cook with the microwave so I can have the same quality of food but with less effort. I type on the computer, which is still difficult. I avoid what I cannot do and learned how to do other things differently.
Most of all, it's improved my attitude. This may be the biggest benefit of all. It's much easier to stay positive if you get to see the outside world.
Do you have a plan to add exercise to your daily routine?
It's Your Turn
You've heard my story. Now it's your turn to get off the couch. If you aren't sure how to get started or you aren't sure if you should, talk to your doctor. Check out the Arthritis Foundation. They've got wonderful resources!
The important thing is to start. You will probably never will be a marathon runner. But, you might be able to walk 5 minutes a day in the yard or to the end of your property and back. Then one day you might make it to the corner and then around the block.
Walking not your thing? Try an exercise DVD. They have them especially made for people with disabilities. A stationary bike might be your thing. The important thing is to keep trying.
Remember...you don't have to do 100 sit ups or run a mile. You just need to do a little bit each day. That little bit will keep your joints moving, your muscles flexible, and your heart pumping. Give it a try! You're already in pain. See if a little exercise doesn't do you some good!
Disclaimer time! I'm no doctor, physical therapist, nor anyone qualified to give you medical advice. If you have questions and concerns, check with a medical professional. There are many people out there who have the answers you seek and can point you in the right direction.
Need Some Inspiration?
Look. I know it's not easy. Trust me I know. There was a point after I quit working that I was feeling really low. I was so fatigued and I could barely do anything around the house. You don't know how much not being able to hold a job will affect you emotionally.
I can't say enough about how much this book helped me get through the rough spots. The author tells her own story of dealing with chronic disease. I found it uplifting and inspirational.
I knew that the author understood what I was going through because she had experienced it herself. It can be hard for those who've never experienced chronic pain to fully grasp how much it takes over your life. That's why I appreciate the perspective of someone who was going through it and found a way to cope.