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Learning to Listen & Respond to Your Body’s Needs

I’ve done what journalists call burying the lede in this post. If you want get to the heart of body scans, skip on over to Learning to Listen to Your Body, my latest post on Migraine.com. To understand how listening to your body relates to your life, migraine, chronic illness, and society, keep reading.

Spending time with mothers of young children recently, I’ve been struck by how in tune they are with their children’s needs. Even though the child can’t speak, their mothers know that that a certain squirm means “let me down,” while another indicates a dirty diaper, that a particular squeak means the child is hungry.

Imagine being that in tune with your own body. Think how valuable that knowledge could mean for someone with migraine, whether episodic or chronic, or any other illness, for that matter. If you can identify early warning signs of an impending attack or downturn, you can take appropriate medications or avoid overtaxing yourself, resting when needed rather than only when you’re completely exhausted.

This knowledge is particularly valuable in migraine, since the first phase of an attack, called prodrome, causes physiological changes in the body that many of us are unaware of. Some people yawn a lot, feel tooth sensitivity, have a creative surge, get hyperexcited or depressed, or a host of other symptoms. Unless you’re aware of the minute changes in your body, you may not know a migraine is coming on before it whacks you over the head. Knowing your personal prodrome symptoms are crucial, since migraine abortive medications are more effective the earlier in an attack you can take them.

We are all capable of being as aware of our own bodies’ needs as a parent is of their child’s needs. Living in a culture that prizes busyness and activity over any downtime most of us have never learned how to listen to our bodies or take care of ourselves. When we get sick, we continue ignoring what our bodies have to say — sometimes as a coping mechanism, sometimes because that’s the only way we know how to function. We do so at our own peril and, I fear, ultimately worsen the symptoms of illness.

Fortunately, listening to our bodies is a skill we can learn, just as we can learn to play the piano or bake cookies. Meditating is one way I’ve learned to listen to my body. A body scan, which can be part of a meditation practice or done on its own, is an excellent, clear-cut method for learning to hear what your body is telling you. Learning to Listen to Your Body, my latest article for Migraine.com, walks you through a short body scan and recommends some resources for a guided body scan. Like mastering any skill, it takes practice, but the reward is worth the effort.

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Is it possible to validate one’s pain and still live a life beyond bed when you’re chronic?

“Short and simple, Validating Your Pain is the First Step to Getting Stronger by Danielle LaPorte is astonishingly powerful in its approach to pain,” I wrote yesterday. My first instinct was to tell you it is an absolutely must-read article for anyone with chronic illness. I even wrote, “Read it now. Right now. Really.” Then I let the ideas simmer for a while and began to question how they could realistically apply given the constraints of chronic illness and pain.

Head on over and read the post. It’ll only take a couple minutes and the ideas are intriguing. Then come back to read what I’m thinking about it and share your impressions.

I love, love, love the thought that people with chronic migraine, including me, might stop denying the reality and severity of this illness to everyone around them, even themselves. Pushing through despite our debilitating symptoms, pretending we feel better than we do, brushing off others’ concerns. . . These strategies seem like the only way to survive, to have some semblance of a life while also having chronic migraine. But they also lock us in a battle against ourselves, where we’re constantly denying how we truly feel physically and emotionally.

“Validating your pain is the first step to sanity, strength, and healing,” LaPorte writes. My therapist has expressed a similar message. I’m listening. And I really want to buy into what they’re saying. Yet, I cannot help but wonder how to follow their lead and still get anything done. Three of LaPorte’s points tied my mind in contradicting thoughts of “That would be amazing” and “How is that possible?” They are:

Endurance can be a very unwise choice. As inevitable as emotional and physical suffering is, it doesn’t always serve to make us stronger — sometimes it just wears you right down. Sometimes, the test of strength is to say “This isn’t working,” the millisecond it’s not working.

Believe your pain. It’s not a friend you want to invite over, but when it does show up, it always — always — brings you precious information about what’s best for you.

Dare to be high maintenance. I bet you’re invincible in many areas of your life. But when you need it, ask for special treatment.

It is a good time to note that LaPorte does not have chronic pain, but extreme sensitivity to dental work. She’s talking about validating her pain a couple times a year. Applying her ideas to the daily life of chronic illness is so seductive. Imagine recognizing (and stopping) every time you’re wearing yourself down by trying to push through, listening to your body’s signals and resting accordingly, asking for special treatment. Sounds blissful. And utterly inconceivable, a life-sentence of confining yourself to bed.

Still, I want to believe that these concepts can apply to some degree and improve life with chronic migraine. I want to validate my pain and listen to my body, ask for help when I need it. For LaPorte, honoring her body and her needs leads to an effective treatment for her pain. Many chronic migraineurs don’t have the luxury of surefire way to manage their pain, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, photophobia, and numerous other migraine symptoms. Admitting our pain doesn’t get us a numbing agent, it just takes us away from living our lives.

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Yes, Body, I’m Listening

“C’mon, you don’t feel that bad,” I told myself upon realizing I was slumped over the coffee table with my head resting on my arm. My next thought was “Oh, wait. Maybe I do.” What an exciting moment to realize I was listening to my body.

A couple years ago I conceded that if I find myself sitting on the kitchen floor, I probably feel too bad to be cooking or cleaning. Or if I’m resting on the couch and discover I’m in the fetal position, the migraine is probably pretty bad. Instead of shrugging off my body’s cues as melodramatic, I finally see that unconsciously engaging in pain-soothing behaviors is a good indication I’m in bad shape.

I have long done so much on a good day, trying to take advantage of it, that I push myself into days of sheer exhaustion and severe migraines. That hasn’t been happening so much in the last year. Perhaps this is a sign that I’m paying attention when my body tells me to stop.

How does your body tell you it’s time to rest?

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Can Painkillers Cause More Harm By Masking Pain?

Ben’s story in When Is a Pain Doctor a Drug Pusher?, the NY Times Magazine article I wrote about yesterday, brought up something I’d never thought through: Opioids don’t correct the problem that causes pain; they just mask the pain. Couldn’t this cause more harm than good?

Ben, a farmer for whom “. . . years of pushing 800-pound bales of hay wore out his back,” said:

“They [opioids] helped my pain. I could get out and work, use the bulldozer. I was working a 250-head cattle herd. I was doing everything relatively pain-free because of the drugs. They gave me my life back.”

When there is a physical cause of pain, won’t doing activities that the injury made impossible cause further degradation in the damaged area? The same areas of the body are stressed as were before, but the body’s warning system can’t do its job.

Even when pain can’t be traced to a direct physical cause, as with headache disorders and migraine, masking the pain may still be harmful.

Say I have enough pain relief to return to my previous levels of activity. The “lifestyle management” tools I use now — regular sleep, exercise, minimizing triggers, etc. — would no longer seem as important. I’d probably let them slide. Why worry about triggers if they don’t affect my daily life?

But I’d still have chronic daily headaches and migraines, I just wouldn’t feel the pain of them. Getting rid of pain would not keep chronic daily headache and migraine from doing harm in my body and brain. The potential for long-term damage remains. Also, migraine has many symptoms other than pain that a painkiller can’t treat.

On the contrary, some argue that the brain learns to be pain and gets stuck in a rut. If something no longer causes pain, then the pressure on this mechanism could let up and allow the brain climb out of it’s pain rut. If this is the case, opioids make sense.

I’m not arguing that opioids shouldn’t be available for patients who need them. (My stance is the opposite.) However, treating an illness and treating pain caused by the illness require different approaches. Getting closer to the source of the problem when possible seems the logical place to start.

Addiction is the problem child in the realm of opioids. Sometimes the quieter kid really needs the attention.

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