Yoga For When You're Angry
Stop Telling me to try Yoga
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“Well, have you tried exercise?” I’ve heard variations of that question probably every week since being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It’s often well-meaning, but sometimes it’s snide, or even incredibly problematic.
I know, it seems counterintuitive -- exercising is healthy! And the benefits of exercise for and some chronic pain issues are well-documented. But “start exercising” is almost never a feasible step one for people newly diagnosed with chronic pain.
Let me explain: I'm not saying that exercise isn't a good thing for people with chronic pain -- it absolutely is! Exercising has been an important componant to my personal care plan and has improved my mobility. I would never suggest people stop exercising or not make it a goal.
Instead, I want to write about how it's a ridiculous suggestion for the first stepfor pain management, how it's frustrating to have people, including doctors, believe that exercise will solve all chronic pain problems. Exercise is a great thing to do for chronic pain, but it feels like an insurmountable mountain to climb if it's the only suggestion you're getting as a patient.
Chronic Pain Symptoms
When my symptoms started, walking became agonizing. I had to stop riding my bike to class because the pain in my knees was too acute. The idea of going to the gym was laughable because simple activities were painful, and the effort of making it through a day of school or work were exhausting. The resulting pain and fatigue would make it impossible for me to complete my everyday tasks. Why would I do more strenuous activities?
For chronic pain sufferers, being told to exercise in order to reduce pain can feel like the most nonsensical advice in the world -- because if all the treatment you’re receiving is being told to exercise, it’s almost impossible to start. Without other support features in place, telling someone in pain to exercise is telling them to make themselves feel significantly worse, to increase fatigue, and to hope for results that may be entirely negated by flare-ups that could be caused by overworking yourself.
Exercise and Chronic Pain
After a time, I realized a critical component to my healing process had been left out -- painkillers. My new specialist prescribed a heavy-duty NSAID, and suddenly all the activity I had been avoiding due to extreme pain became feasible again. The addition of serious pain management opened the door to my ability to then exercise.
The pain has to be addressed first before exercise can become an option. There’s nothing less motivating than trying a low-impact workout and then losing a weekend to a subsequent fibromyalgia flare up.
Even if there is no physical damage being done to the body, pain is debilitating enough. Combined with energy loss and fatigue, it’s easy to see why many chronic pain patients would choose to skip the exercise in favor of being able to go to work, or have a relatively normal day where they can complete daily tasks like meal preparation, chores, and even socializing. The benefit promised by exercise can seem too far away to make it worthwhile.
I don’t think this is a matter of “no pain, no gain,” either. I think it’s a matter of patients being given insufficient pain management techniques and support, and being expected to struggle through something that exacerbates symptoms over and over again. Going to physical therapy for weeks without pain medication never alleviated my symptoms -- but going to physical therapy for fibromyalgia, after working out a therapeutic medication regimen, did produce tangible improvements in my mobility and pain levels. But I could never have gotten there without a doctor that treated my pain first, and recommended exercising second.
Diet and Exercise for Chronic Pain?
When a doctor (or friend, or well-meaning acquaintance) tells me I should stop taking medications and simply “manage” my pain through diet and exercise, they don’t seem to realize that medication is the only thing helping me manage my pain enough to have the energy to exercise and eat well.
For folks with chronic pain that is poorly handled with medication, these suggestions are even more frustrating -- getting to the point where exercise is possible is a hard battle involving small, slow incremental improvements.
Chronic Pain and Physical Therapy
For me, it took months of incremental physical therapy exercises -- repeatedly stepping on a box, lots of stretching, and using one pound weights -- to get to the point where I could start swimming laps in a pool or use an exercise bike daily. I had to train my body and also train my mind to know that I wasn’t injuring myself.
Yet I continue to struggle with knowing when enough is enough -- how much exercise is going to trigger a flare? Is the pain I’m experiencing signaling a potential flare-up, my normal everyday level of pain, or the expected soreness from a work-out? And the set-backs can be frustrating, because when normal folks can add reps or weights to their workouts regularly, it can take me months to move up a dumbbell size.
Again, this doesn’t mean that I stop exercising, but exercising with chronic pain is not as a simple as it seems. So stop telling me to try yoga.
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