Managing Chronic and Compensatory Pain Is Like Playing Whack-a-Mole
Self-preservation instincts create unexpected issues for this columnist
Historically, my pain-related issues and injuries have been more heavily located on my right side. My right ankle, hip, shoulder, and hand all have some sort of significant issue related to or made worse by Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).
My right ankle is permanently damaged from me stubbornly continuing to play soccer on a sprained ankle in high school, and I managed to partially tear my right hip flexor when I slipped in a flooded field not long after that. My shoulder is badly damaged from a terrible soccer injury that caused a dislocation, clavicle fracture, and several muscle, tendon, and ligament strains and tears that have never healed well, thanks to EDS.
All of those things I’m used to managing. But somehow in the past few weeks, I managed to aggravate the muscles under my left arm and down along my rib cage. The pain went up into my armpit, up and across toward the front of my shoulder, and down my ribs. It was exceedingly painful and so inflamed I could barely touch it. I took some ibuprofen to help calm down the inflammation, which helped a little, but I knew that I had to get it sorted out.
I suspect that, like most people with a long-term injury or chronic pain, there are many ways we compensate without even thinking. With my right shoulder so badly damaged, I default to doing things with my left arm without consciously realizing it. I often grab for items on a high shelf, carry buckets, or do other taxing things left-handed. While my right arm and shoulder have dramatically improved from where they once were, it long ago became a habit for me to protect them.
While this protective tendency is good in many ways, it can also create its own problems. When I overload one side to compensate for the other, I can make myself sore in new ways and in new places. I honestly don’t know exactly what I did to cause the muscles on my left side to flare, but I suspect that whatever it was, it’s probably something I would do with my right arm if I weren’t so protective of it.
I’m glad to say that I’m feeling better after some bodywork and being more aware of the need to give my left arm a break. I often feel like I’m playing a constant game of whack-a-mole with my body, because just when I feel like I’ve tackled one issue, another appears. As much as I enjoy smashing plastic, electronic moles with puffy padded bats at a carnival, I’m far less of a fan of having to do it with my own pain. Thankfully, I do have tools such as rest, heat, massage, and pain medicine in my personal arsenal that can help when needed.
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