Pain is in the Eye of the Beholder


The cover photo is of my front shoulder exactly twenty-three days after having arthroscopic surgery. It doesn’t look like much and I was amazed by how small the scars were from two of the three incisions that you can see (a third is on my back). The surgery was for a fifty percent tear of my rotator cuff, a SLAP tear of my labrum, as well as cartilage damage. Yes a tri-fecta of shoulder injuries which were caused by an accident while playing racquetball. I was told that the recovery from this type of surgery was going to be very difficult. While a little concerned but Hell, just a few years ago I had knee surgery to reconstruct my fully torn ACL which was actually the second operation on my knee after a miniscus tear in my twenties. I was off of pain killers in the first week and through vigorous physical therapy made a great and speedy recovery. I got this…or so I thought.

Its been more than six weeks since my surgery and lets just say I have been more than humbled by the experience. I continue to need pain killers which I hate taking, I have to sleep in a sitting up position which may continue for another two to three weeks. I also use the word sleep loosely as I rarely can get more than three hours of un-interrupted sleep before being awakened by the alarm clock of pain at which point I put on an ice pack with the hopes of returning to slumber which often doesn’t happen for hours. This has been my routine since the day after surgery. Between lack of sleep, continual pain, and pain killer haze, I’ve been thrown into a vicious cycle that has really taken a toll on me.

I posted a few status updates on Facebook regarding these experiences and here’s a (slightly modified) excerpt from one of them on a day when I ran out of pain medication due to carelessly waiting too long to refill it.

If you saw my update on Friday regarding my surgery recovery then you have a prelude into tonight’s update. At work today the pain was so bad I had to leave early. Tonight I went to bed at ~11:30PM after taking (1) 325Mg Hydrocodone (Vicodin) of which I only had 2 pills left and didn’t take an Ambien which had become pretty routine over the last 2 weeks. I woke up at 12:42AM with massive pain and quickly grabbed my shoulder ice pack and fearing the end of my pain pills poured myself a healthy glass of Scotch in hopes of numbing the pain. I continued to ice my shoulder for the next 2 hours. At ~3:00am I took my final Vicodin pill. At ~4:00am I’m still icing my shoulder and continue to have very strong pain. Fearing that something may be going wrong with my recovery or perhaps that I’ve ripped the anchor screws I decided to search the internet for information which is when I came across (this link) where countless people have shared their surgery and post op stories of rehab and pain only to find out that I’ve now joined their ranks. I took comfort in reading their words which prompted me to shed tears as I was calmed by the realization that while I am in massive pain, things are probably ok.

As an avid self-tracker and blogger around on the topic of the quantified self I decided to find software to help track and manage my drug intake. I tested several apps and came away liking Dosecast the best which has proven to be very valuable. (UPDATE: I found a much better app called Medisafe and wrote about it here)

In 2007 my Mother passed away. She had been suffering from chronic pain for several years due to several ailments including surgery from rotator cuff repair. I remember criticizing her quite a bit for the use of pain medications to help her cope. Since my surgery I have been thinking about her quite a bit and Mother’s day this year was especially difficult. She was such a strong, beautiful, and amazing Woman who raised my Brother and I alone. How could I so easily dismiss her pain? Sure I had her best interests in mind trying to minimize her dependency on drugs, but in the end I had no right to judge her which is exactly what I had been doing for quite some time. I also came to the realization that her surgery occurred while in her sixties and her line of work as a hairdresser put a great deal of stress on her shoulder. Especially considering that she continued working until the day she died.

Mom after a long work day

My experience recovering from shoulder surgery has made me learn quite a bit about how subjective pain can be. There are so many variables involved that there was no way I could have calculated it for myself, much less another person. It’s just another lesson learned in life and a reminder on my need to reserve judgement of others. There does seem to be hope in ways that pain could be measured objectively in the future. It’s hard to imagine that chronic pain affects more than 100 million Americans who no doubt have to find their own ways to cope. I hope we see progress in this area over the coming years as I fear for my state of health as I grow older with a list of growing ailments of my own.

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