Anybody who experiences any kind of chronic pain can tell you that it sucks—not only in the figurative sense, but also kind of literally. It sucks away your energy, your motivation, and your money. More often than not, any kind of “real” solutions, if there are any solutions for whatever particular condition you may have, are not of the cheap variety, and we poor common folk often tend to be, well… poor. Or, if not outright poor, just getting by, making enough money to cover basic expenses, but not enough to pay for any kind of long term treatment option, not even enough to start putting aside a little bit of every paycheque to work towards treatment… which in turn leaves us not only in pain and upset, but further upset because we can’t do anything significant (in our minds) about said pain. It’s a nasty cycle.
Given the cost of healthcare (even here in Canada, universal healthcare is not a magic cure-all), for a lot of people, myself included, a massive part of learning to deal with a chronic pain condition of any kind is symptom management. Little things, day to day, that will get you through until the next time. Is it a permanent solution? No. But sometimes, it’s all we’ve got. In nearly ten years of dealing with this pain in my everything condition, I’ve picked up a few tricks, most of them cheap because hey, guess who doesn’t have health insurance and does have a condition without any known cure? (If you guessed me, you’re right. Congrats.) It occurred to me, however, after seeing some tweets on my timeline tonight, that there are people out there who are me, ten years ago, new to the condition they’re dealing with or experiencing that nasty moment when the pain escalates from a manageable level to one that makes regular activities hard and panicking because they don’t know what to do in order to keep functioning like a *air quotes* normal, functioning member of society. (I’m pretty sure that phrase—“functioning member of society”—is an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp,” but that’s neither here nor there.)
So, without further introductory babble from me, here are some of the things that have helped me, and where possible, DIY/even cheaper options for those of you in particularly dire financial straits, along with a breakdown of things I’ve learned along the way. To use one of my father’s favourite phrases, here, in no particular order, are some of the methods I use to deal with chronic pain on a shoestring budget.
- Epsom salts baths. Epsom salts are fantastic and greatly underrated, in my humble opinion—I’ve even managed to forget about their potential at times. *facepalm* In my experience, you can usually find a large bag of these bad boys at a pharmacy for under $15, and one of those bags will last a nice long while. All you’ve gotta do is pour some into the tub, make with the mixy-mixy, and climb in and soak for at least a half hour. Obviously this works best if you a) have a bathtub and b) can fit all of the bits in need of soaking into said tub. Shower only household? Try getting a large container. You can at least soak some limbs, like hands or feet, and when it comes to chronic pain, even a little bit helps. If you’re like me, make sure you’ll be able to get out of the bath once you get into it.
- Hot/cold packs. Depending on the type of pain, applying either heat or cold can help lessen it. Stiff muscles can be relaxed with heat, a swollen joint can be calmed a bit with cold. A friend of mine, a few years ago, gave me a therapeutic pad for Christmas—it’s a package of clay encased in a cloth cover, and can alternately be frozen if you want to ice something, or tossed into the microwave if you’re looking to apply heat. It distributes both extremely well, and also has a Velcro strap on the cover so that you can attach it to whatever bit is sore and carry on with your day. The heat/cold lasts for about 30 minutes at its peak and dwindles over the course of an hour. I don’t recall the cost of the heat/cold pad I have—it’s about 3-4” by 7-9”, at a very rough guess—but I would estimate it at around $40. Can’t afford that? For heat, try running a cloth through hot water (make sure it’s not too hot), wringing it out, and applying it to the sore area. I think I’ve also heard mention of microwaving a damp cloth. Not sure I recommend that one; might make your microwave a bit smelly. Exercise caution before trying stuff you read on the internet, kids! For cold, try folding a facecloth in half and putting it in a large freezer bag, then freezing it. As it thaws it’ll mold itself to the sore area you apply it to.
- Hot water bottles. These, again, can be had for relatively little expense at your local pharmacy, and will again aid in applying heat. I was lucky and got the one I have as a Christmas gift from my mom, the same year I was given the clay hot/cold pack. It was the Christmas when everybody acknowledged that I’m a little bit broken, and it was kind of awesome. (Not sarcasm.) Part of my chronic pain condition includes stomach/digestion issues (I’ll spare y’all the gory details), including rather nasty stomach cramps at times. I learned completely by accident one day that laying the hot water bottle against my stomach soothes more than one kind of cramp, for those of you out there who also have the fantastic good luck to deal with chronic pain and It’s everybody’s least favourite form of bloodshed and needs to go die in a fire, which I suppose is basically what hot flashes are. Either way, I feel better for saying that. We can move on now.
- Over the counter medication. I know, I know, this is pretty much the first course of action for just about everybody experiencing an owwie (except for the stoics who refuse to admit they, too, want a lollipop after seeing the doctor and the super cool Scooby Doo band-aids for their ouchies, much less take some low grade painkillers). The problem there is that after a while, this pesky little thing called drug tolerance rears its ugly head, and your garden variety painkillers stop working. That said, there are some things you can do to prolong the process, as it were.
- Step one is to be aware of the active ingredient in what you’re taking, and also be conscious of which ingredient works best on different types of pain. If, like me, you have memory issues, try an online search (but check the source to make sure it’s credible!); I have an infographic saved on my phone that details the best uses of acetaminophen versus ibuprofen, the two main painkillers I’ll take for pain. For those who don’t know, acetaminophen is the main ingredient in Tylenol, and is typically better at handling things like headaches and arthritis pain, whereas ibuprofen, the primary medicinal component of Advil, is better for fever, menstrual cramps, and inflammation, so things like sinusitis, backache, sore muscles, and ear- and toothaches. Because both have different main ingredients, they can be rotated so that when one wears off, the other kicks in—BUT taking these regularly isn’t a good idea, because just like with any other drug, they do have consequences down the road. Too much acetaminophen at once can damage your liver, and prolonged use of ibuprofen can lead to kidney damage, stomach bleedings and ulcers, heartburn, and my personal favourite, constipation. As a result, I try not to take something, not even OTC stuff, for pain unless it’s significantly impacting my ability to function.
- Typically, I’ll also alternate—I’ll buy a bottle of acetaminophen, and when that’s gone, switch to ibuprofen, to prevent my tolerance to either one of them getting too high. This is still a temporary solution, though, and there are definitely other over the counter painkillers out there; I mention these two because they’re the ones I’m most familiar with. However, there’s also aspirin, naproxen (the main component of long-lasting OTC pain meds like Aleve), and I’m sure plenty others I’m not even thinking of right now.
- Low on cash? Buy the no name brand instead of the fancy schmancy brand name stuff. It’s the same stuff for cheaper, and if we’re being honest, the store employees are probably in a similarly poor financial situation. They ain’t gonna judge you for not buying the “real” thing, and if they do, fuck ‘em. If possible, buy your OTC painkillers from a bulk store like Costco. It’s a larger sum of cash to drop in one go, but the bottle will be huge and last you for ages, which is wiser in the long run if you, like me, go through OTC meds faster than your average person. For the sake of safety, please make sure to read dosage instructions before taking them. I am by nobody’s definition a medical professional, just somebody who takes a lot of OTC painkillers, sometimes at a higher than recommended dose… and even I’m coming to the realization that I’m going to have to go the prescription route at some point if I want to preserve my internal organs. Needless to say, I am not excited, but that’s a problem for another day.
- Massage. Yeah, the registered folks are expensive. But get a little essential oil, “convince” a close friend/significant other/family member (I’m here to tell you bribery is fair game when it comes to chronic pain) to put on their masseuse hat, and get them to rub whatever’s sore, if you can’t reach yourself. It eases the muscles and relaxes you, too. Win-win! (Plus, y’know, if the significant other is the one doing the rubbing, other… possibilities… *whistles innocently*)
PSA: We’re now moving away from things that have a direct, immediate benefit and into things that are more preventative, or the little things that can also make a difference.
- Vitamins. It sounds like a silly thing, and I hate to admit it helps after so long avoiding it, but vitamins are relatively inexpensive, and they provide you with vitamins (durr) and minerals that you may be lacking in if you’ve got a chronic illness. Again, buy the no name brand from a bulk store—the bottle I have is from Costco, cost under $20 if I recall correctly, and literally contains a year’s worth of daily vitamins. It’s a small thing, but it’s a tiny step towards better overall health, which gives you better odds when dealing with the ginormous piles of steaming bullshit which chronic pain will eventually, inevitably, chuck at you with a motherfucking trebuchet.
- General comfort levels. Again with the no-brainers, right? And yet, speaking for myself, this is something that often doesn’t cross my mind when said mind is wholly occupied by thoughts of “Ow this hurts make it stop.”
- Sore, cramping feet? Put on slippers and take some of the load off by warming them up and giving them a cushion.
- Same situation, except concerning hands? Fingerless gloves will ease that while still letting you retain the use of your fingers.
- Are you prone to chills like I am? Bundle up in comfy clothes and drink up a mug of hot chocolate, cider, tea, coffee, or the hot beverage of your choice. Not only will it warm your innards and your hands, but there’s also the comforting factor of sitting with a mug between your hands and taking slow, calming sips.
- Conversely, do you experience hot flashes that could put menopause to shame? Wear layers. Strip as you get hot, keep the layers you shed close, and put ‘em back on when you start to settle. Bonus: endless amounts of striptease jokes, if you live with someone who’s got the same sense of humour that my roommate and I do.
- Chronic pain messes with your head more thoroughly than Natasha Romanov on a mission and pissed off Wanda Maximoff combined. Having a body that just doesn’t function the way it’s “supposed” to is frustrating in a way I can’t even begin to describe for those who haven’t dealt with it themselves. Your body, that thing you control with brain impulses and conscious thought, just… won’t do the thing. Or won’t do several things. People your age are running for their health instead of to avoid the zombie apocalypse, playing sports for fun, working full time and volunteering all without batting an eye, and you’re sitting there like “… I got out of bed and put pants on today!” and getting the “Congratufuckinglations, weirdo” look. Sometimes, it’s a bit too much to handle, and your brain just sort of short circuits a bit. I almost had a breakdown the other day because I couldn’t open a jug of iced tea. To get back on track, have some comfort foods/items/activities/whatever that can help calm you down when you’re starting to approach your breaking point…. but don’t underestimate the catharsis of falling apart sometimes. It’s exhausting, both physically and emotionally, but nine times out of ten, you will come out of it feeling a hell of a lot better than you were pre-breakdown.
- Sleep. Do not, ever, underestimate the power of sleep. Kindergarten teachers know its power and use it wisely with daily naptimes. Alas, for those of us trying to be “productive” members of society, daily naps aren’t really an option anymore. (If you do manage a daily naptime, please to be taking all my jealousy.) That said, naps can help deal with stuff. Emotional overload? Sleep and clear your head. Everything hurts? Take a nap. And not only that, but (and boy oh boy I have never felt like such a hypocrite as I do saying this, while writing a blog post at 5:17am), make sure you get enough sleep on a regular basis. Countless studies have documented the effect on human beings of going without sleep. In summary: it ain’t good. It makes us more irritable, less productive, less perceptive, and, if you’re experiencing pain, it’s probably going to make it worse because your body needs rest. There. Enough hypocrisy from me.
- Nutrition. This one is hard on a budget. Kale is one fucking expensive bit of rabbit food, and some health food stores kind of tend to scream “YOU CAN’T AFFORD ME, BITCH” in my head whenever I walk past them, so… that’s out. However, it’s all about baby steps. Start with something as simple as making sure you’re eating enough, regardless of what it is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been feeling dizzy and faint only to realize I haven’t eaten in 10+ hours. Do as I say, kids, and not as I do. (Also, is it just me or is it one of nature’s biggest jokes that feeling hungry can make you feel like puking? That does not make me want to eat something, body!)
- Another point to this that I’m putting as a sub bullet because I couldn’t find a good place to cram it into the above paragraph: stay hydrated. We are 70% water, and I don’t think anybody wants to find out what happens if that balance is skewed. MAINTAIN THE BALANCE. DRINK YOUR WATER. (Plus it’s healthy in a whole bunch of ways, or so I’m told.)
- Exercise. As suggested above, you’re not likely to see me running unless the zombie apocalypse has arrived, and even then, if they’re like the zombies you see portrayed on TV nowadays, fuck running: I’ll power walk away from that shit faster than a suburban soccer mom on a fitness kick. But, just like doing nothing but exercising is unhealthy, so is stagnating all day long until you grow moss. (Unless you’re a rock troll, in which case, were you in Frozen and can I have your autograph??) Everyone has different levels of pain, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for others, but it’s all about finding the exercise you can comfortably do, and being flexible with your schedule about it. For me, those are biking, swimming, and walking, primarily, usually with my dog for that last one. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to exercise three days per week without fail, because when chronic pain does what it does best and fucks your plans and intentions up the butt without even buying them dinner first, you’re going to end up beating yourself up for not honouring the commitment you made, and then it just feeds right back into that nasty cycle I already mentioned. Find activities you can take part in, and try to do them whenever you’re feeling well enough. Start small and work your way up. Like the vitamins, it’ll also help you recover more rapidly when you hit a rough patch, and it can improve your mood, too, which brings us to our next (and final) point…
- Emotional support. This is one of the ones I’ve struggled the most with, but it’s also one of the most important, in my snarky, yet humble opinion. Irrespective of the financial, medical, whatever situation you’re in, I refuse to believe that there isn’t someone out there who cares about you. You don’t need to tell them everything. Maybe you just haven’t been friends long enough to comfortably discuss bowel movements, maybe that’s not a thing you ever want to discuss with anybody. That’s fine. Just make sure there is someone you can talk to when things get bad, because the one thing I know from having chronic pain is that it will get bad—it’s a matter of “when,” not “if.” A high percentage of people with chronic pain also experience depression and/or anxiety, and you can’t tell me that’s coincidental. I have always been at my worst late at night, at 3am, when I’m the only one awake and I want to wake somebody up to help me make sense of what’s happening to me but don’t want to inconvenience them. I wouldn’t get through those nights if I didn’t know that morning would come, people would wake up, and there would be someone for me to lean on. Getting through it by yourself only makes an already hard, painful thing even harder and more painful. Reach out. It’s hard, but with practise, talking about what’s going on in regards to your mental, physical, and emotional health will get easier. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we can’t help if we don’t know something’s wrong. Share the load. Make it easier on yourself.
- Bonus points: If you live with someone, make sure that person is at least vaguely aware of some of the things that can help you. Chronic pain isn’t always considerate enough to let you be coherent while you’re in pain, because as previously established, chronic pain is an asshat with no friends and probably daddy issues, so there are other tips that can help at those times. A former roommate/still-a-best-friend and I have a system. I say the word mango, she knows I’m not doing too hot, and she knows thanks to discussing it ahead of time that it’s probably best to toss me into a dark room with a bed and leave me there for a while, with various implements of modern DIY medicine.
- Humour is a big part of coping for me. Thankfully, I’ve got friends who share my morbid, sarcastic sense of humour, and who know me well enough to know that if I’m still snarking, I’m going to survive. It’s when I stop making jokes that they know to worry. Over time, they’ve become used to the jokes I make about being chronically ill, and can join in. Poking fun at it makes it less threatening, less scary, more surmountable.
If you’ve read this far, you are probably either very bored, or (maybe?) entertained, and regardless, my new hero. I probably forgot something, because as previously stated, my memory is one of the many things that doesn’t work properly, but I think this covers the basics, and I’ve certainly rambled on for long enough. This has been kind of fun to write, actually, which I didn’t expect. I’m taking that as a sign that I’m getting better at talking about this junk, to which I say huzzah, motherfuckers! Anyhow, if even one person gets some use out of this post, it’ll have been worth fucking up my sleep schedule still further. If you have any additional suggestions, questions, or just want to tell me I use the word “fuck” and its many variations far too liberally, please feel free to comment in the appropriate space below. All suggestions will be taken into consideration and possibly added as a separate post, unless the suggestion is to swear less. (I mean, come on. This is my sweary corner of the internet. It says so right at the top of the page. Don’t tell me you weren’t warned.) Fuck that noise.
This, folks, has been a post. And now it’s (finally) over.