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We live in a culture which promotes the nobility of working through pain.

This past weekend, I had the briefest moment of lateral elbow pain, and it reminded me of the experience I had with tennis elbow 10 years ago. I remember trying to work through it, and really thinking that it couldn’t happen to me. I would just tough it out.  A year and a half later, it beat me into submission. Shots didn’t work. Medications didn’t help. Braces helped a little, but what…I’m going to use a brace in the OR? But I can tell you I wore one when I rode my horse, or cleaned house. I stopped lifting weights, which is probably what got it started in the first place. And then it hurt to do everything. I had to stop doing everything that hurt. I even had to resort to the dead-carp handshake. That’s when you just hand someone your limp hand, rather than give a nice, stout handshake.

Since then, I have listened to my body, and when I have a pain…a pain not related to having just bumped into a hard surface…a pain not related to a bone sticking out of the skin, or blood or pusI LISTEN!

Or better said…I FEEL! And this is what I do:

  • I immediately try to figure out what might be causing it.
  • If I can, and depending on what it is, I temporarily or permanently stop doing it.
  • I modify the way I do anything that hurts.
  • RICE
  • Maybe I’ll take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, since I can. Many people can’t take them, so don’t.
  • I stretched, and did not allow myself to get stiff. This is important. So many patients stop moving a joint that hurts, and then they get stiff. They mistakenly think that moving the painful area will harm it in some way. It’s unlikely. And a stiff, painful joint is even harder to treat.

So, back to my tennis elbow. I felt that pain, like twice in one morning. But I KNOW that pain, and I see patients with it every day. It can be disabling. I set to work trying to figure it out. I think I’ve been playing my guitar a lot lately. But I also lifted some heavy boxes a few days ago. I backed off on the guitar picking, because that’s a more aggressive style of playing the strings. When I went to the grocery store, I had them pack less in each bag, and I paid attention to how I lifted them. I used my left arm a little more. I got out my old wrist brace and tennis elbow brace, and used them all day. I iced my elbow, stretched and massaged it. I took some OTC NSAIDS. And today, the pain is gone! Hope it stays that way. Tomorrow will be the test. Shaking hands with patients and family members all day. If it starts hurting, I’ll put on my brace or resort to the dead-carp handshake.

You can use this basic method for any ache or pain that’s not due to an injury, or doesn’t involve deformed bones, pus or bleeding. It’s rare for me to see someone who has only had this kind of pain for a few days. Usually they’ve had pain for weeks, or months, and by then the problem is well entrenched. It’s much harder to treat.

Be more proactive when it comes to pain. In my opinion, it’s not so noble to work through it.

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