If you’re in pain all the time, why don’t you just take painkillers?

Every so often something will happen to make you review your current treatment and circumstances.

For me it was a series of heart flutters and painful heart palpitations as I tried to work a couple of weeks ago. As people with long term illnesses we have to way up our current quality of life with pain against our long term health all the time. It’s done thing that most people take for granted, taking medication that simply works in the short term with no ill effects.

I’ve had a number of people this week (people who know me fairly well) no less ask me with genuine sincerity:

If you’re in pain all the time, why not just take a painkiller?

In their world maybe pain = painkiller is a simple no brainer, but it simply isn’t always like that in mine.

A short history of pain

Painkillers are remarkable inventions. Prior to the discovery of opiates and anaesthetics people (even doctors) believed that pain was a natural consequence of life. Something that had to be endured through every routine treatment or surgery.

This meant pulling teeth or sawing off limbs without anything more than volunteers to hold the good patient down. Pain was a sensation from god, something that was unnatural to remove. Some of the first people to suggest otherwise (and try to evidence this in educational theaters) were lampooned and humiliated. A silent patient that felt no pain (despite amputation for example) was unnatural, ungodly, unreal.

Somehow we might have gone a little too far in the other direction with our relationship with drugs that can numb pain. We’ve come to depend on the sensation of pain relief for acute pain so when it comes to developing persistent pain, we expect the same solution to work each and every time.

Painkillers are great for acute illness, but not always indefinitely perfect for persistent pain. We know the reasons for this well but they’re still worth exploring. The difficulty comes from getting others to understand how painkillers aren’t always a simple answer:

Every painkiller has side effects

I’ve had to completely wean myself off of painkillers for 90% of my time managing with endometriosis and this is because the side effects from medium to strong opiates/anti-inflammatories (especially when taken everyday) can be almost as bad as the pain.

The painkillers the doctors were giving me at one point were so strong they were knocking me out or making me extremely dizzy. I can’t think straight in either of those circumstances and in a work environment the pain starts to become preferable.

Some painkillers used to constipate me to the point of agony. Not ideal for an illness like endometriosis where one of the main symptoms can be bladder or bowel problems. The point is painkillers aren’t always a perfect solution, for many of us grappling with long term illness they can have profound flaws and downsides.

Getting others to understand the myths

It’s like people who say when you’re feeling unwell/tired you should rest. It’s not as simple as that for someone with long term illness. There’s a perception that there’s an equivalent exchange of energy. Like if you’re in pain or tired for two days if you rest for two days straight it’ll balance out. Persistent pain just doesn’t work like that in the real world.

We all just want the pain to stop

For me taking painkillers routinely was becoming a problem. Not something I could rely on every single day, I’ve had to rethink how I think about pain, and in time I’ve come to accept its presence in my life. The problems with my painkillers were becoming too frequent and was making stuff like working impossible, eventually it was effecting my quality of life more. On painkillers I could accomplish more than I actually could in reality, and when their effects wore off, I felt like I needed to take more just to continue managing.

Now without taking painkillers as often, I’m aware of when my body needs rest and crucially I have developed a picture of what my actual pain levels really are.

Instead I try to manage my pain day to day with pain management and cycling and I try to save the painkillers for a more “acute model” of pain. So painkillers become the exception rather than the rule. I have a seven stages to my personal pain-killing treatment, escalating through exercise, stretching, walking, heat pads, TENS machines and full-rest all before I reach for the painkillers.

Following your prescriptions is immensely important

For some of you painkillers are the only way you can manage each day, and that’s fine. I can totally understand. You should always take the medicine you are prescribed as your doctor knows your circumstances best, I merely wanted to talk about how others perceive painkillers to be a perfect solution to our experience with pain, and how it isn’t always so clear cut and simple.

8 responses to “If you’re in pain all the time, why don’t you just take painkillers?

  1. I have reposted your blog entry on my blog because this was perfect. Thank you!

    I gave you credit.

  2. totally get this! i try not to take painkillers. Regular ones don’t work, and opiates constipate me and send me a little loopy. it’s only in dire straits that i take them. x

  3. Clare Adamson

    Thanks so much for this article, I do not have endometriosis but I have chronic back pain due to scheuermann’s disease as well as sometimes leg pain and the fatigue that follows chronic pain, sometimes I have trouble trying to sum up what I’m trying to say to others, especially if it’s important – in this article you have done that for me! I am currently on a journey of learning to manage and (through my choice) I am trying to limit those painkillers. Many thanks and best wishes, Clare 🙂

  4. I was diagnosed 5 months ago and have had large chunks of the month where I am in pain. Thank you so much for this post. It’s so difficult explaining to people that I am in pain but I am not going straight for painkillers because at best they dull the pain and at worst make it worse. I am still working on how to manage the really bad days but your posts really help me explain to people where I am up to and how I’m getting on. Thank you

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My name is Michelle and I've been living and working with endometriosis since diagnosis in 2010.

I hope to provide some hope for this illness through practical advice and discussion of this awful disease.