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Pain Chronicles: What a Massive Pain

Pain Chronicles is a monthly(-ish) column from Caroline McDonagh-Delves about coming to terms with living with a chronic illness. It will include funny stories and brutal honesty, with some thrown-in chats with her mum Shaz, and other friends too, along the way. 


If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you may be aware that I broke my ankle in November. I think I may have mentioned it once or twice. With a bit of luck, by the time you’re reading this, I’ll be pretty much back to “normal”.

I know I’m on my way back to “normal” because my regular pain is starting to come back to me. My usual fibromyalgia problem areas are my shoulders, my lower back and hips, as well as overall fatigue. Of course, other parts of my body tend to get worried they’re missing out and jump in on the action, so you never really can tell what’ll hurt, but they’re the primary problem areas. The other night, my lower back hurt more in bed than my foot did.

Co-morbidity is something lots of us are familiar with. Different conditions tend to flock together – a phenomenon which gets us accused of “collecting disabilities”.

Fibromyalgia often occurs with chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and psychiatric disorders. Rheumatoid arthritis co-morbidities include myocardial infarction, asthma, diabetes and kidney disorders. Lupus is also associated with increased cancer risk, rheumatological and neurological diseases and anaemia. 

Most chronic pain conditions are often accompanied by depression, but it is rather depressing to be in pain all of the time.

Is it so much that a person is “collecting disabilities”, or are our bodies wanting to exist in such a perfectly balanced state of homeostasis that if you break one thing, the whole lot goes haywire?

Given my literal break of the bottom of my fibula – the smaller, luckily less load-bearing bone of the lower leg – I fully expected things to go tits up for me. I’d been battling a bad cough too (thankfully covid-19 negative), which I didn’t know at the time would develop into a chest infection, so there was just a lot for my body to be doing.

Then, in some bizarre way, my body seemed to prioritise. You see a version of it in fight vs. flight; where adrenaline kills pain to combat or escape, but I wasn’t fleeing anywhere (although I can be lethal with a crutch). 

Putting my weight on two sticks on my arms (along with a very stylish moon-boot) sounded like a recipe for disaster, but my shoulders just… behaved themselves.

My left knee hurt from the added weight of the boot, but my right knee pain just stopped. I had a band of pain across the middle of each hand, but my fingers and wrists gave me a break. The tops of my arms hurt like an absolute bitch (I hate using crutches), but my lower back only hurt if I walked a long distance. 

It’s something I know my mum, Shaz, has experienced, but hers has potentially a more medical explanation. If she has a water infection, her joints hurt less.

I can’t find any medical confirmation of this, but we’ve always thought that if you give her immune system an actual invader to deal with, it has less left in the tank for going after her own cells as well.

My foot still hurts, but I’m now done with the taxing business of growing new bones. I’m just healing bruised ligaments and learning to do the whole heel-to-toe walking thing I’ve taken for granted since I last had to go to podiatry. Recently, my “good foot” is a bigger problem, leading to a penguin waddle reinserting its way into my gait.

I’ve often displayed a mental compartmentalisation ability – university and home seemed to exist in different universes – but it turns out that my body possesses the same. 

Big pains drew big attention as far as my nerve cells were concerned, and when there was no longer a loudspeaker of knitting bone back together, I went back to feeling like I’d stepped out of the Princess and the Pea.

A blessing? A curse? I did not feel good at any point between tripping on that uneven pavement and right this second – but it isn’t hard to imagine how much worse it could have been. 

I’ve expressed frustration with how slowly I feel things are improving, but Rachel keeps reminding me that I can’t control my health. And I guess I have to give my body credit for the kindness it showed me right after I literally broke it.

Now, if I can just master that heel-to-toe motion, I’ll be cracking.


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2 replies on “Pain Chronicles: What a Massive Pain”

I wondered if other people had experienced this pain-prioritisation! I have chronic pain in my back, but when something else hurts, it fades out! I always wondered if it was my imagination, but sometimes the pain just stopped, or moved to where it was “needed”. Bodies are weird.

Thank you for writing about this!

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