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Can Pain be a Blessing?

By Rhonda Collins, I Start Wondering Columnist

It was a glorious spring day – 65 degrees F, sunny, with a light breeze – and I was in my happy place: gardening. I was planting a new raised bed for a summer vegetable garden on my patio.

I needed more soil in the bed. So, I did as I had done hundreds of times before, and grabbed the bag of Miracle Grow to move it from where it was stored to where I needed it. Before I made it to the other side of the patio, I felt a sudden, sharp, burning sensation, as if an electrified arrow had been shot at me between my left hip and my spine.


This flare-up of lower back pain happened while I was still healing from a pulled tooth that followed a root canal, both of which resulted in my mouth and face being sore for weeks. And the tooth problem started just as I was healing from a painful sprained ankle that had me hobbling and using a cane me for a couple of months.


Thus, began my journey with pain – a months-long constant companion that tortures and toys with me. The backache will almost go away, tricking me into believing it’s safe to get back to a normal routine, only to come roaring back after a short hike or sitting too long.


Some days the pain is mild; on other days, I don’t want to get out of bed. And, the spasms move as I overexert other muscle groups in an effort to avoid the ones that were hurting first. Ugh!


Living with Pain

I didn’t realize until I started researching pain and its cures that I had so much company on this miserable path of pain. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, one in five U.S. adults are living with pain. That’s about 52 million people who are hurting every day.


Furthermore, the CDC study found that “the prevalences of chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain were higher among older adults, females, adults currently unemployed but who worked previously, veterans, adults living in poverty, those residing in nonmetropolitan areas, and those with public health insurance” (i.e., Medicare).


In other words, we see yet another challenge that’s more common among older, retired females, than in other populations. And, women with limited incomes are especially vulnerable because they may not have as many inexpensive options available for alleviating the pains that often come with aging.


Treating the Pain

We are fortunate that our society’s advancements in medicine and technology have given us many options for pain relief. Pain medicines – pills, ointments, shots, and patches – give quick relief. Other drugs, such as anti-inflammatories, nerve blocks, muscle relaxers, and steroids can indirectly reduce our hurting.


If you have good insurance or savings, you can get chiropractic adjustments, physical therapy, acupuncture, electro-therapy, various types of massage, and other therapies for the pain. And, as a last resort, there’s surgery, which can be quite costly, even with insurance.


If those costlier alternatives are not accessible, you can try over-the-counter treatments, heat and cold packs, or exercises and stretches, which may help over time.


I am thankful for the many treatments that are available to take away my pain. I avoid pain medicines because they make me loopy, forgetful, and nauseous. The other interventions I’ve tried all help a little, but don’t completely get rid of the discomfort. So, I’m still working with my doctors to explore the source of the pain and treatment options, which means my pain journey continues.


Thinking Differently about Pain

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

Meanwhile, I’ve had a revelation regarding how I should view my pain. I’m actually starting to be grateful for it.


I just finished a wonderful novel, The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, where one of the characters, a doctor, explained how patients with leprosy feel no pain. Rather than being a blessing, the lack of feeling is a curse, because lepers are constantly injuring themselves without realizing it. The injuries result in open wounds, bruising, infections, and other issues that can result in loss of limbs, serious illness, or even death.


The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt and What We Can Do About It by Paul Brand and Phillip Yancy, discusses Brand’s work with patients who have diabetes, nerve disorders, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord trauma, and leprosy, who have this curse of a lack of pain. The authors assert that pain is a gift because it’s a signal that something is wrong in our body, something that actually helps us to live.


The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt and What We Can Do About It

“Few experiences in life are more universal than pain, which flows like lava beneath the crust of daily life,” Brand and Yancy explain. They describe the gift of pain as “an extraordinary feat of engineering valuable beyond measure.”


There are exceptions to the notion of pain as a warning signal that something needs to be fixed, such as the discomfort one might feel from a damaged nerve as it’s healing or the pain that a cancer patient might feel following chemotherapy. Beyond those cases, pain has the potential to be an important tool in our healthy aging medicine kit.


What I Learned About Pain

As I have tried to appreciate my hurt rather than consider it an affliction, I’ve begun to see pain as a teacher. Here are a few things I’ve learned:


  • Pain is the body’s way of communicating with us. My CranialSacral Therapist Jenni De Jong taught me to listen to my body. When I tune in, I sometimes feel the pain telling me my muscles need to be stretched or massaged. Sometimes, I get the message that I need to relax and let the tension flow away. One time I couldn’t “hear” what the pain was saying because I was so thirsty. I realized I had not had a single glass of water that day and my joints were probably aching due to lack of hydration. Listening can help reduce pain.


  • Pain helps us be more empathetic. When we have known pain, it helps us understand the discomfort in others and also to be remorseful when we are the cause of that hurt.

  • Pain slows us down. When it becomes unbearable, the aches will forces us to halt or modify our regular routine. This is an opportunity to focus on the present and reevaluate our priorities.

  • Pain can’t be wished away. The discomfort continues to pierce our consciousness until we turn our attention to it. In dealing with it, we are forced to examine the cause of the pain and determine how to treat it.

  • Pain resolves more slowly as we age. One of the most difficult lessons for me to accept was that I don’t snap back from injuries like I did when I was younger. Also, sometimes our bones are so worn from overuse or arthritis, they may be past the point of healing. We may have to learn to live with the aches or figure out how to modify our regular routines.

  • Physical pain can lead to emotional distress. My aching backside has led to days of frustration because nothing seems to be working to stop the pain. Some days, it takes great mental wherewithal to push through.


And, so we learn from the pain in our bodies. I’d like to say this story has a happy ending, and as I’ve come to completely appreciate my pain, it has gone away. Unfortunately, I’m still trying to keep my discomfort at bay.


Beyond Physical Manifestations

In addition, most recently, I’ve been experiencing pain of a different sort. I have been grieving over the realization that I may never be able to hike 10 miles like I once did or bend over and get something at the back of the refrigerator’s bottom shelf without hurting a bit. It saddens me to think that this might be my new normal.


I believe that emotional pain has many similarities to physical pain. The same lessons listed above might equally apply to sadness, guilt, disappointment, frustration, loneliness, and grief. As with my hip discomfort, can I be grateful also for the acute ache from the loss of a loved one? Perhaps it helps me be more understanding when a friend is going through the same grief.


On days when I am hurting – whether it’s from my aching backside or from the hurt of the heart – maybe I should stay in bed and focus on self-care for a day or two. Or, at least slow down a bit.


Maybe, I will take a break now from my too-long to-do list, fix myself a cup of tea, grab the heating pad, and take a seat on the patio to simply watch my vegetables grow for a while.


Before I take my break, I want to ask our readers how they deal with pain. Let’s start a dialogue on pain management. Do you have a secret recipe for abolishing aches or diminishing discomfort? What helps you soothe emotional pain? How do you comfort others dealing with pain? Can you share some painful lessons you have learned?


1 Comment


Dorian Martin
Dorian Martin
Oct 13, 2023

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with pain, Rhonda. Unfortunately, it's a journey that too many women share. My own journey with pain led me to learn how to listen more closely to what my body is telling me, rather than bulldozing my way through (which is what society encourages). Of special help was craniosacral therapy, where I learned that I had "stuffed" emotions into my hip. It's taken some time to release that stuck energy, but I am now pain-free. (For those who haven't read Jenni de Jong's and my ISW columns about CST, please do so. You can find them at https://www.istartwondering.com/post/a-therapy-for-the-whole-self-how-craniosacral-therapy-taught-me-to-treat-the-whole-patient and https://www.istartwondering.com/post/surprising-healing-qualities-of-cranialsacral-therapy). Take care and be well, Rhonda!

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