By Melissa Wardlaw.
As a patient who has suffered with systemic CRPS/RSD (full-body) and multiple other chronic illnesses and pain for over 15 years now, one unfortunate factor I can rely on in my medical journey is knowing I will experience flares; aka, an increase or exacerbation of pain & symptoms. Flares can be mild or severe, short or long, and can occur because of many reasons, including the following:
-Not enough rest/recuperation (poor preparation & lack of pacing)16
-Excessive stress/extreme emotions
-No reason at all! (As we know chronic illnesses and pain have a mind of their own!)
On a recent birthday trip with my mother to a nearby hotel resort and casino, I experienced a very severe flare. I was prepared for this to happen, as flares often occur when I’m traveling or out of my comfort zone. This particular flare was likely caused by a lack of rest and excessive activity, but it came on very quickly and hit me like a ton of bricks!
The main area that happened to be flaring most severely at the time was my right leg, where I not only have CRPS/RSD, but also sciatica and fibromyalgia. The intensity of my pain, muscle spasms, restlessness and other central nervous system-related symptoms instantly made me want to jump off a bridge! For those of you who have CRPS/RSD, which is rated the highest of all chronic pain syndromes on the McGill Pain Scale, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you just how badly it hurts all the time, and especially during a flare!
Because of how intense this flare was, I was in tears. My mom, who is also my rock, best friend and fiercest advocate, was there with me. Needless to say, she has witnessed multiple flares and has seen me at my worst (and my best)! I was thankful she was there for me during this time. So what strategies did I use to handle my flare?
1) REST/MEDITATION/DEEP BREATHING
This method is tried and true, and it works! The first thing I did was to go to the room, turn off the lights and lie down in bed to rest. I had been overdoing it thus far on the trip and hadn’t taken a much-needed break. I believe this is one of the many reasons that contributed to my flare. I started breathing deeply, focusing on calming down my nervous system. You see, when our pain and symptoms are flaring that intensely, it causes our heart rate to increase, and the fight or flight response (which is always activated with CRPS anyways) to kick in even further. The stress mechanism is triggered, flooding the body with cortisol and other hormones that make our pain and symptoms even worse. So, the best thing to do is to counteract this response by calming down our emotions and nervous system, using deep breathing and meditation tactics. There are multiple guided meditation videos, short and long that are geared specifically towards chronic pain. By doing a quick search using key words such as “Meditation for Chronic Pain” on YouTube, you’ll find hundreds of videos to meet your specific needs. Example videos include:
Thankfully my mom was able to help with massaging my leg (etc.) but one of the constant strategies I use especially when having a flare is self-massage. I’m constantly massaging various parts of my pain-ridden body as any other sensation than pain helps to offset the burning and seething as well as various other kinds of pain and symptoms coursing through my body. Massage also helps with stress management, relaxation and healing by reducing inflammation present in CRPS and other chronic pain issues. Stretching and shaking my legs (and other extremities) helps to not only bring circulation back into the areas but also increases energy lost to the ever-present fatigue chronic pain brings.
3) PAIN SPRAY
I would be lost without my pain spray! I have tried just about every pain cream, gel and spray on the market and the best I’ve found is a rare spray, only sold in a few places (most outside of the US), called Muscle Mist. Yes, it is expensive, but it is all natural and not only does it help to temporarily distract from the intensity of the pain and symptoms, but it also reduces inflammation by restoring blood flow to the area. Additionally, it provides stress relief with the natural oils in the spray. Some people even think it smells good too, which I may debate, although I can attest to the fact it definitely smells better than 3/4 of the ones I’ve tried! You can buy Muscle Mist here (and no I don’t get anything if you purchase it LOL): https://www.aromasensations.com/musclemist.php
4) TENS UNIT
Similar to my pain spray, I don’t go anywhere without my TENS unit! I’m sure most of you are familiar with this technology, but if not, (TENS) Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation is a therapy that uses low-voltage electrical current for pain relief. The electricity from the electrodes stimulates the nerves in an affected area and sends signals to the brain that block or “scramble” normal pain signals. Another theory is that the electrical stimulation of the nerves may help the body to produce natural painkillers called endorphins, which may block the perception of pain. The unit is portable and comes with four electrode pads, which you can wear on any part of your body. Because I am allergic to the traditional electrodes, I have to get special blue gel ones for sensitive skin so I don’t break out in a rash. TENS units are FDA approved and very inexpensive to buy over the counter without a prescription. The one I use is the TENS 7000 which can be purchased many places, including Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/TENS-7000-Digital-Unit-accessories/dp/B00NCRE4GO
When I am having a flare, it is particularly helpful because I can put all my electrodes on the area that is most painful and it helps to reduce the intensity.
Focusing on a flare is hard not to do, especially when it is nearly impossible to think of anything else. But that is exactly what I have found is the worst thing to do! Pain is akin to a toddler having a tantrum and thrives off attention; the more attention you give it, the more it demands. So instead of crying, screaming, cussing or getting more anxious, all things that cause your body and nervous system more stimulation, the best thing to do is try and focus on something else, anything else. After resting and calming myself down for a bit, I decided to get up, pull myself together and go back down to the blackjack table! And guess what – by using the method of distraction and not giving the pain more power and attention, I was able to reduce it and power through my flare much more effectively.
In conclusion, whatever techniques you use to battle a flare, whether short or long, mild or severe, the key is to know WE CAN! After all, we have done it many times before and will do it many times again. And we are still here – still standing and fighting! We have come a long way in understanding our own bodies and pain/symptoms and will only continue to learn more and develop more effective coping mechanisms. We are stronger than our illnesses and that’s what makes us chronic illness and pain warriors!
Melissa Wardlaw was diagnosed with CRPS/RSD as a result of a spinal cord injury (non-paralyzing) suffered during a routine medical procedure. She also suffers from fibromyalgia, lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, migraines and additional chronic medical issues. Formerly a Business Executive/Consultant with an MBA in Entrepreneurship, she is also a Certified Career Coach and Certified Professional Resume Writer, and now spends her time career coaching and offering peer counseling/advocacy (pro bono) to those dealing with similar medical struggles. As a fierce advocate, she also runs both an in-person and online Support/Empowerment Group for CRPS/RSD and Chronic Illnesses/Pain in the Metro Atlanta area.