Taking control of persistent pain
by Lindsay N.
In the fall of 2001, on the Saturday before the start of my sophomore year in college, I developed a high fever, lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital. Within days I began experiencing migraines and intense pain in my arms, shoulders, back and neck. Blood tests showed that an infection had preceded the pain, but doctors couldn’t agree on a diagnosis. Unable to walk or even read a book, I withdrew from school. The pain continued, and for a year I went to different doctors, including some of the best on the East Coast, trying to find answers. I finally stopped looking for answers when a rheumatologist told me I probably had fibromyalgia and would have to learn to live with the pain.
Over time, I learned that if I was active and ate healthy foods, I could keep my pain level down. I also discovered that the biggest trigger was emotional stress and if my stress was down, so was my pain. But I couldn’t prevent stress in my life and with every stressful event came a pain episode.
In 2010, I saw an OHSU doctor for a sports injury. He saw from my chart that I was living with chronic pain and referred me to his colleague in the OHSU Pain Center. When I first saw Dr. Beth Darnall, we agreed my pain was under control; however, my life was also relatively stress-free. Two weeks later, she called to offer me a place in her pain management class. A day later, my stress shot up to its highest point ever. In addition to preparing for my wedding in two months, I found out I was waitlisted for medical school and had one month to move closer to the medical school to establish residency. This led to a spiral of stressful events for my fiancé and me: abruptly quitting our jobs, relocating across country, rushing to find new jobs and reapplying to medical school. With the immense stress, my pain returned aggressively and I needed help. The timing of Dr. Darnall’s offer was extraordinary.
The first thing Dr. Darnall talked about was the strong cause and effect relationship between stress and physical pain. I had seen many doctors over the years, but no one had ever explained the science behind my chronic pain. Knowing what caused the pain was key. Dr. Darnall taught me not only to identify my greatest emotional stressors but also how to control my body’s hormonal responses to those stressors. Through relaxation and meditation, I could stop the hormone surge that caused my pain response—it was like flipping the pain switch to off.
If medical tests don’t show what is causing chronic pain, talking with doctors can be very frustrating. Finding someone who’s dedicated her whole life to understanding and treating - not masking - chronic pain was a remarkable gift. For a decade, my pain controlled me and I thought that was my only option. Dr. Darnall gave me answers when I had given up, she gave me power to take control and she gave me hope for my future. Life can be stressful, but my stress and pain will no longer dictate the paths I take. In August, I will begin medical school. I hope that others take advantage of such an extraordinary health practitioner.