Friday, November 14, 2008

Training Us to Fear Pain Medication

Several years of dislocating bones, primarily the patella in either knee, the left hip, the left shoulder blade, and all fingers except the thumbs causes me a great deal of pain. For years, I'd been afraid to take any pain medications except Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen because I had been drilled that "Pain meds make you an addict". I wouldn't take anything stronger than codeine when I had pneumonia and didn't have any idea what it was like to feel pain-free.

It started with the spine. For those who have undergone slipped discs, back strain, or broken tail bones- I completely empathize with you. During the years in uniform, I was part of the deck crew. This meant I painted a lot of metal, and used power tools to peel paint off the sides of ships. Like everyone, I had sore muscles, and aches. The difference was that I would have subluxations in my spine. This is slightly different from a dislocation. The bones would slide left, right, or forward and back but slip back into position. Although not quite as painful as a dislocation, which leaves the joints and bones out of place for several minutes, or even hours, the sublux happens in moments, and the pain is fairly intense. Unlike dislocations, a subluxation doesn't show up in an X-ray, but the results are similar- strained muscles, pinched nerves, and eventual arthritis.

Doctors offered me Robaxin. This muscle relaxant, generic methocarbamol, did wonders for the strain. It also served to alleviate some of the "female" issues I was having by easing cramping and premenstrual aches. The primary issue with this medication is that joints tended to be eased to the point where more subluxations and dislocations ensued. The secondary issue was the increase in depression that is considered a mild side effect. The issue of pain wasn't resolved, however.

For years, every time anyone offered pain medication, I expected that I would fall under the same issues presented in the film Reefer Madness. Anytime I heard about "morphine" I was told about Viet Nam vets who were still in the hospital trying to recover from their love for the medication. I would hear about parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors and "some guy" who lived near "some girl" who was so hooked on this substance that he sold his kids to slavery in some foreign nation that likely doesn't even exist. I was scared into never trying pain medications.

Seventeen years after my spine snapped forward and backward for the first time, a young physician in San Francisco said, "You have a choice- wheelchair or pain meds." I still was afraid that I'd end up in rehab somewhere, and reluctantly tried a week's supply of hydrocodone, also known as Vicadin. For one week, I could stand upright without wincing, and managed to walk across a campus at San Francisco State without stopping. It was bliss. But I still feared any long term use.

Six years after that, I found myself in another doctor's office, with a shoulder flipped about 20 degrees out of the socket. I had waited for a few hours, and it still wasn't going back into place, so she offered to give me a steroid injection, then told me I would probably do well on some pain meds for a little while until it healed. Several weeks later, I was off of the same meds, without experiencing the feeling of critters crawling through my skin, nor did I have night sweats, hallucinations, or sudden cravings for cheese doodles. I was just not in pain for a few weeks, and then all went back to normal- which was mostly aching, and mostly unsure as to what to do about it.

In 2002, I was told by a pain specialist that I was going to have to deal with the issue, as I was in a wheelchair on and off several weeks a season. My fear was unfounded, and years of hurt could have been averted had I not been so trained into believing that women are supposed to be able to handle it all, including the feeling of a bone sliding out of place. I was supposed to quietly deal with what was ailing me, because any other option would mean I'd be a statistic. For the first time in my life, I accepted the assistance of Morphine. In the first three months, I had not only let my wheelchair gather dust, but I was now able to walk for more than a few minutes at a time.

In time I discovered that those of us who are on strong medications are not easy to spot. We don't shake, we don't sweat, we don't sit in corners, alone in the dark staring up and around looking for cops. We simply exist. After such a long time on one prescription, I am learning that I've become almost immune to its effect. When I had surgery a couple of years ago, I was given Dilauted to recover. I remembered what it was like to not feel the ow-factor anymore. I have to change to a new medication soon, as the wheelchair is starting to peek out from its spot in the garage again. But, it's good to know that I finally have these options after being so frightened by the paranoid propoganda that I'd end up on some lonely street corner, selling everything I owned to get these meds.

Today's question- What have you been told to make you fear medications that would help you? Did you ever refuse help because of the stigma surrounding it? Have you been unable to see a pain specialist or was told not to see one?

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