Seventeen years ago, I was in a devastating car accident. I was rear-ended so hard that I hit the car in front of me and was sandwiched like an accordion. On impact, I whiplashed so hard, a disc in my neck herniated and eventually caused me left-sided paralysis. A surgical fusion helped my paralysis but left me with some nerve damage on my left side, and chronic pain.
I went on to have two more back surgeries from that accident. Over the years, I’ve suffered from ongoing chronic pain and migraines. I lived with migraines that haunted me day in and day out. I became dependent on oxycodone and muscle relaxants that my doctor prescribed me until she decided to put me on a pain contract and limit my ability to seek other forms of self-care.
That’s when I decided the prescription painkillers weren’t doing me any good, and I didn’t want to stay on those pills for the rest of my life. I decided to start finding ways to relieve my pain without opiates and other addicting medication.
Here are the multiple things I’ve found that work for me:
A good sleep plan.
I’m an early riser and have no problem getting to sleep at night. However, I have a hard time staying asleep.
If I don’t get enough sleep, it’s likely I’ll have a difficult next day.
I have tried everything for sleep and found the best that works for me is CBD/THC at night. Where I live, this is legal and we have access to many dispensaries. I buy a strong tincture that I make into edibles and take it at night which helps me sleep like a baby.
I was hesitant to take this, because I’m not much for the claims that CBD cures all ailments. However, after trying everything else I could think of (including sleeping pills), a CBD/THC combo at bedtime helps me relax and sleep soundly, without a pill hangover in the morning.
I became involved in a pain clinic or specialty migraine clinic.
When my headaches started becoming a daily problem for me and my primary doctor was unable to manage them, I requested a referral to a pain clinic. For my insurance, I don’t have access to an actual migraine clinic, but the pain clinic works.
Pain clinics work less with opioid pain control, and more with simple procedures or more natural ways of working with your pain.
It also takes time to tweak a pain management program, with lots of stops and starts. It takes a lot of patience, and is frustrating when you’re in pain every day.
I can’t stress enough to be your own advocate in the medical system. Stay on top of your care providers and communicate when a tried treatment isn’t working for you. I had to do this a lot with my pain clinic and it took a couple of years to dial myself into a regimen for helping my migraines. Once they understood that I needed much more than mind/body awareness and exercise, I was given options for procedural treatments.
I do trigger point injections.
A lot of my migraines come from my muscle tightness in my upper back, neck, and shoulders. Part of it is stress, and part of it is my nerve damage from my car accident.
Trigger point injections are small needling injections of saline into the belly of a cramped muscle. I usually have about 40–50 injections in one sitting. This relaxes my muscles enough for a moderate amount of time. I usually have this procedure about 3–4 times per year.
I have occipital nerve blocks.
My migraines typically start at the base of my neck, then creep up the back of my head and wraps around to my eye, my temple, or the entire half of my head. Occipital nerve blocks work well for this type of migraine I have.
This is an office procedure which takes an injectible steroid placed in the back of my head on both the left and right side. It is a bit painful and the first 24 hours I’m riding on steroids, but otherwise, they are wonderful and work for months. I can usually tell when they start to wear off because my migraines come on more frequently.
Because of the steroids, I work to limit these injections to 2–3 times per year, in-between my trigger point injections.
I used to be a hard-core runner and exerciser. As I’ve gotten older, my exercise regimen has become less rigorous and therefore with less risk of injury or overexercising that can trigger a rebound migraine crisis.
I’ve learned certain exercises help immensely with my chronic pain such as yoga, walking, swimming, light weight lifting in my upper body, and regular weight lifting in my lower body. A sauna at the gym is also very helpful.
I gave yoga a try and developed a practice
If there’s anything that works well and is non-medical, it’s yoga. This deep stretching and relaxation exercise not only builds your core (helpful) but brings you closer to understanding your body cues through your mind/body connection.
I get on my mat and do at least 10–30 minutes of yoga per day, depending on how I feel. Even a short amount of yoga is helpful for decreasing my stress and stretching out my body.
I started a meditation practice.
I have to admit, I don’t do formal meditation every day, even though it’s part of my pain management program. However, I take short breaks when I’m starting to feel really stressed out.
Meditation takes as little as five minutes of your time. It’s a mental break and a way to destress. I close my eyes and take some deep breaths, then start counting my breathing on inhale and exhale; 1–2–1–2–1–2. That’s all you need to do, breathe and count, and empty your mind for a couple of minutes. It’s enough to recharge your brain.
Some other modalities that I’ve tried and were successful (I just don’t do them all the time, although I probably should) are massage and acupuncture. This also helps loosen tight muscles and keep my chronic pain under control.
I explored my triggers and then avoided them
Whether it’s caffeine, alcohol (which is mine), a certain type of food, or whatever — I pay attention to what I eat, drink, or any lifestyle indulge that triggers my migraines. Alcohol is a huge trigger for me, and as much as I would love to tie one on, I am more motivated to remain migraine-free. So I drink very rarely, and I still have a good time.
I recommend keeping a journal, because it’s easy to forget. Write down your habits including eating and drinking, and also the days you have migraines. You’ll see a pattern after a while and notice some cause and effect. Tweak your lifestyle to make new changes, ones where you still enjoy life, but even more so without pain.
I still have migraines, but not daily anymore. My maintenance plan keeps me pain-free most days. However, I still have breakthrough pain, with a cyclical migraine pattern. For breakthrough pain, I have a different action plan. It’s two simple steps:
I listen to my body and act on the cues before a pain crisis.
Managing chronic pain is an intuitive art form. You have to learn to read your body. You must pay attention to the cues your body gives you before you hit an all-out pain crisis (something you want to avoid at all costs).
I read my body all the time. Am I tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Did I sit too long and need to take a walk? Do I need a short nap? Anything that my body needs, I listen and give what it needs to be comfortable and pain-free.
I’ve also learned to read those “funny feelings” when a migraine is coming on. Unfortunately, it’s not just one feeling I have, but could be any or all of them. I make a mental note when I have prodromal body cues. These can be a stiff back, body aches, fatigue, heightened hearing (like an auditory aura), buzzing in my ears, vertigo, low back pain, upper back pain, or double vision.
I’ve become a master at reading my body because I know the sooner I catch an oncoming migraine, the sooner I can act on implementing my acute pain plan. Otherwise, I’ll be in bed all day, or worse…headed to the emergency room.
I have a plan for an acute pain crisis.
I have a routine for chronic management, but when I have breakthrough pain and I have a migraine even after all the foundational measures have been done, I take migraine medicine. I usually take it once I recognize my prodromal signs. If I think I have time to try something else, like stretching or resting, I’ll try that first. Usually, though, I will most likely need to take my migraine pill.
This is my own pain regimen. You do what you need to do to take care of yourself, and work with your doctor to come up with your unique action plan that works for you.
Editor's note: This article contains medical advice based around the author's personal experience. Always consult a medical professional before scheduling a procedure or beginning a new wellness routine.