Pain Acclimation and Relief Relativity

You know the phrase “It’s all relative”?  Well, that is how I explain my ever-changing tolerance to higher pain levels and how my definition of relief continues to change.

Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission to fund my Disney obsession if you use these links to make a purchase. You will not be charged extra, and you’ll keep me supplied with Pixie dust and Mickey pretzels. It’s a win for everyone. I am not a medical professional, and nothing stated in this article should be mistaken for medical advice…


Acclimating to pain

I have lived in many different climates.  With each move, my body adjusted to the different types of weather.  For example, I went swimming on Christmas day for the first few years after moving from Ohio to Arizona.  Arizona winters felt like Ohio summers, just without the humidity, for those first few years. 

It was common for me to be seen wearing shorts and flip-flops all winter long, that is, until I acclimated.  After a few years, those warm winters began to feel cool, then a few years later, I found myself feeling cold and actually dressing for winter weather. 

The temperatures hadn’t changed; they were the same as when I moved there.  What changed was my definition of hot and cold.  For most of the time that I lived in Arizona, my body defined temperatures over 115 as too hot, 100-114 as hot, 85-100 as just right, under 85 as chilly, under 70 as freezing. 

I never thought that I would feel warm again after moving to California, with a climate that was cooler than Arizona yet not as humid as Ohio.  But within a few years, I found myself defining temperatures differently.  Now I consider any temp over 85 as too hot!  Again the only thing that has changed is how long I have lived in a particular climate.


It’s all relative

When you look at the relativity of the climate, how I defined each one makes sense.  Think about it.  Because I was living with daytime highs between 90-120 and lows between 80-90 for six months of the year, feeling chilly when the high was 80 makes sense.  Now that I live with daytime highs between 65-85 for 90% of the year, it makes sense that I no longer tolerate highs above that range. 

The same goes for my pain.  Going from no pain to pain from one condition was devastating.  Now that I have lived over 10 years with multiple conditions, the pain I experience from just one or even two of my conditions is something I consider to be a very good day!

I feel it is safe to assume that if our bodies and minds are able to adjust to the physical climates we live in, they are also able to acclimate to the physical pain caused by our chronic conditions. 


Pain and more pain

The pains that had me running to the ER early on in my life of pain are now pains that I have learned to live with.  It is not to say that the pain I experienced early on was less severe than what I experience now, or is it?  Yes and No.  The pain is different because, at that time, I was only dealing with one condition instead of multiple pain-inducing illnesses.  However, I would still rate that early pain as intense as my current pain because, at the time, that was the worst pain that my body had ever experienced.  As far as my body and mind were concerned, that pain was the most awful pain that one could experience.  My threshold rises as my daily pains continue to increase.

The problem with ever-changing and escalating pain is that it never ends.  On a sub-conscience, I feel like my body had to accept that experiencing some level of physical pain every day was inevitable, and I learned to adapt.  On a conscious level, I knew that unless I wanted to spend every day of my life in the ER, I had to learn how to cope with various levels of pain.


What relief means to me

My threshold of pain isn’t the only thing that has changed.  My definition of relief is no longer what it used to be.  Early on, relief meant having no pain.  Unfortunately, this understanding only led to disappointment as I never experienced total relief from pain. 

Fast forward 16 years and add a few more chronic conditions, and the term relief has taken on a new meaning. When I say that I am experiencing or have experienced relief, it mostly means that my pain level has dropped one or a few notches.  This would have disappointed me early on, but now I find myself feeling giddy whenever I experience some sort of relief.  By accepting that I will always be in some kind of pain, I am able to enjoy and relish the moments whenever my pain level is reduced, even if just a tiny bit.


Why is this so hard for people who don’t live with daily physical pain to understand? 

I know that before living with constant pain, I had no concept of what it would be like to live knowing that pain was here to stay.  I had painful surgeries and injuries, but the difference was that I healed, and the pain went away.  While the memory of feeling pain-free has escaped me, I do remember that healing feeling.  I can recall how during my recovery my body felt stronger and my pain level decreased as each day passed.  That feeling is similar to how I feel when I am experiencing a chronic flare.  The only difference is that I never fully heal.

I wish for doctors and others to understand that when a person with chronic pain says they are experiencing relief, they are still in pain.  The pain is less but never gone. We are never truly pain-free.  Sometimes one pain overrides another or causes another to spiral out of control.  Any reduction of the most severe pain can make other pains tolerable.  By tolerable, I don’t mean being able to live or keep a pace like I did before becoming chronically ill.  Instead, tolerable means not spending my day in tears.


Raising the threshold

So far, 2016 has not been kind to me in regard to physical pain.  And while the pain I have been experiencing this year feels more intense than anything I have felt before, the past 16 years have given me reason to believe that as time goes by, I will no longer think of it as the worst I’ve experienced.  As time goes by, my body will continue to adjust, I will adapt, and my threshold will continue to rise.

Wishing you a day filled with gentle hugs and many reasons to smile,
The Disabled Diva

Published by Cynthia Covert

Diagnosed in 2001 with psoriasis, followed by fibromyalgia, psoriatic arthritis, endometriosis, and later a botched hysterectomy turned her world upside down. Cynthia shares her experience, advice, and tips for how to make life with chronic pain easier and less painful.

6 thoughts on “Pain Acclimation and Relief Relativity

  1. Your take on the every-changing nature and impact of physical pain is full of insight. Even more importantly, your ability to put it in terms that nearly anyone could understand is the real gift. Selfishly, I wish I were one of those folks who didn’t get it so easily (so much so that the only way to reach me would be a sock puppet show) but this is my life and its the only one I get, right? (Or, is it?) Excellent work. Thank you. If you don’t mind I will be retweeting this.
    Chris Traynor
    Disability Express@LIONHEARTpwd

  2. It’s interesting what you say about increasing pain tolerance. I have found that I experience pain at the lower levels on an emotional level and have now learned that this is a signal that I’m in pain before I realize that’s what it is. When I start to feel irritable or sad it is usually an early sign of pain before it reaches the conscious level so I now take my pain medication earlier and it lets up fairly reliably.

  3. Really enjoyed this post. You are SO correct about the tolerances and weather. Luckily, for the first time in many years, I AM pain-free. The drug I need to take to keep me thus is STRONG. Plus, I have “breakthrough” pain medication. Just as you say: I am “pain free” for all intents and purposes. As always, I love reading your blog posts.

    Before I forget AGAIN…: Do you know where I can get “spoon theory” tee shirts?

    1. Thank you for your kind words. And congratulations on finding something that works for you!!! Hugs!!! I don’t know of any particular site with that shirt, but will keep my eyes open and let you know if I see one.

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