Monday, May 3, 2010

Happiness amidst Pain

My recent GI study brought back a flood of memories for me from when I was sick with an intestinal obstruction. Some of the memories are better than others, like remembering how my hubby slept in the hospital room with me every single night I was there (almost a month!), and how he had to sleep in a ski cap because I kept the room so freezing to avoid being nauseated, and how I got to hear Flanna's heartbeat constantly because the nurses had to monitor her every hour or so.

And then there are the darker memories, like how at the peak of my pain I felt physically ill if someone spoke loudly or turned on a light or (God forbid!) had to take my temperature or blood pressure. And how, when I had been vomiting for like 3 days straight with no relief, I felt like I was in a dark cave or hole teetering on a ledge trying not to fall further in, and every back rub or cold compress from my husband was the rope that was pulling me out. (By the way, back rubs and compresses from nurses? Those were amazingly not helpful at all. Not sure why, but I think they just couldn't understand what I wanted as quickly as Robi could.)

The lucky, wonderful thing about memories, though, is that I really haven't thought about those dark times at all since my illness. My memory let me glaze over the rough spots and focus on the new baby I got in the process.

That is, until I was lying on that metal radiology table again.

And then the floodgates opened, and the memories of pain and nausea and fear and worry rushed back in full detail. Scary detail.

And this really got me thinking. About the relationship between happiness and physical pain.

So, I did a little research. And it turns out that people in physical pain (surprise surprise!) have a hard time being happy. Of course, I pretty much assumed that would be true. What I didn't realize, though, was that the actual biological pathways for pain and depression are intricately linked. A doctor from the Mayo Clinic says it this way,
"...pain and depression share common pathways in the emotional (limbic) region of the brain. In fact, the same chemical messengers control pain and mood."
I also read an interesting article from a doctor at Johns Hopkins who described a vicious loop that is set in motion between chronic pain and depression. Chronic pain limits participation in activities that could bring increased happiness (like exercise, going out socially with friends, working, finishing projects), and then lack of these activities often leads to increases in pain (perhaps due to lack of exercise or fewer distractions to keep our mind off the pain), and so on. I also had no idea that many doctors prescribe antidepressants for pain patients not just because the doctors want to treat possible depression, but because there is recent research that antidepressants are actually quite good at reducing pain as well (because of the shared nerve pathways for pain and mood). How interesting is that?

Now, I didn't actually have chronic pain. And I don't think I was ever actually clinically depressed during my illness. But had the pain persisted, had I not known there was an end in sight, I could definitely see how happiness would've been pretty elusive. Heck, even now, if I twist my back funny and have a catch in it for a few days, it's really a lot harder for me to be "light" and to have fun.

What about you? Have there been times in your life when pain has made you irritable and moody? Hooray, you're not crazy! It's completely normal. You know, shared pathways and all.

By the way, I thought this was a really interesting pain scale. I remember being asked about my pain on a scale of 1-10 when I was in the hospital, and responding, "Oh, I'm maybe at a 3." When I was actually stuck in a bed throwing up all day long. If they had asked me questions like this, I might have realized how much pain I was actually in. You know, a whole heck of a lot. But, anyway.


  1. And now I'm crying....this may be the first good argument for denial/repression of memories. I hate that the memories are so vivid and tactile for you. I think it's amazing what you went through.

  2. Oh no, I didn't mean for anyone to cry!! But I did think of the times we talked about the pain scale when I was writing this. It's probably pretty vivid and tactile for you, too. And I also think it's amazing what you went through. Really amazing.

  3. Your recent experience on the table is a glimpse into the life of someone suffering from PTSD. Sucks.

    I like that pain scale, but it works for chronic pain, not for patients being treated acutely in a hospital.

  4. Hmm, I don't know a lot about PTSD. But I guess it was a pretty stressful life event for me. Sucks is right.