“Catastrophizing” Back Pain

You think you got it bad? A little perspective, please!

This image is a good analogy for how I’ve felt at my absolute lowest – when back pain took over my life and I had zero hope for the future. Absolutely overwhelmed, I spent hours lying on the floor, refusing to attend social events, whacked out on muscle relaxants and wondering if my life was worth living.

I’ve been in that boat twice – the first time when severe leg pain returned shortly after my first surgery and the second in 2005 when a bad job, bad relationship, poor physical conditioning and absolute terror of my spine left me totally debilitated.

For those reading who feel like that now, know that I recovered. I went on to ride miles of single track mountain bike trails, travel to Mexico and Hawaii and France virtually pain free – I got married to someone wonderful.

Also know that as I write this I’m dealing with some pretty sharp pain – a knife of sciatica deep inside my left hamstring, likely brought on by some ill-advised bowling, a touch of holiday stress and cold weather that led me to cut 25 miles per week of bike commuting out of my fitness schedule (I’ve since resumed riding on my stationary bike to compensate for the loss.)

The difference between then and now is I’m not climbing down to the floor to wait this pain out. Knowing that it will go away eventually and I’ll be as good as new, I’m hastening its departure with smart exercise and positive thinking.

As a result, I’m still participating in life: I lifted weights at the gym twice this week, rode indoors for 16 miles (I plan another 8 tonight before dinner), walked 5 miles, picked out a Christmas tree with my wife and hauled all seven feet of it into our house (my wife helped – which turned out to be a smart decision!)

As I’ve delved into the back pain research project that is this blog, I keep coming across this “catrostrophizing” word, which frankly rubbed me the wrong way at first because it strikes me as clinical and made up. But I’ve come around – now I think it’s a perfect description for how I have hobbled myself with fear over the course of my 20-year battle with back pain.

Pain researchers are starting to investigate as well. This interesting study of Danish healthcare workers found those who feared job-related pain were more likely to experience that pain- a self-fulfilling prophesy that I have personally experienced more than once.

That stress is negatively associated with cardiac disease is no longer debateable;  it’s a fact that’s been proven by multiple clinical studies. I’m a firm believer that this insidious process is at work in back pain as well. And if you think about it, what’s more stressful than thinking you’re facing a tsunami of unending pain?


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