September 12, 2019

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The Invicta of Chronic Pain

September 12, 2019

I'm Fi. I joined the Royal Air Force after university. The requirement to be fit and the
fact that physical activity was a huge part of the lifestyle was what appealed and
the opportunity to continue my love of swimming, sailing and horse polo was a
massive bonus.

An unfortunate injury while undertaking a training exercise resulted in the need
for surgery to my hip to repair a labral tear. Even more unfortunate was the
choice of operation performed which wasn’t the most up to date or least invasive
available. Six hip operations later and it was clear that both hips were not going
to recover to the required standard to continue in the RAF.

In another twist of unfortunate luck, I suffered from an unusual and incredibly
dangerous spinal condition called Cauda Equina. On arrival at A & E I had no
feeling, strength or control in my right leg. I suffered loss of bladder control and
excruciating pain in my right buttock. Emergency surgery was performed to
remove the disc that had ruptured at L5/S1 (the levels right at the bottom of my spine). Although the surgery was deemed successful, the long term damage was life changing.


The pain in my right calf feels like when you run a really hot bath and don’t
check the temperature before you put your leg in. It’s a fierce, fiery, itchy and hot
sensation with the strongest pins and needles you can imagine. The only
difference is you can’t take your leg out of the bath! The strength in my right calf
is significantly less then that of my left.


I was told that after 18 months post-spinal surgery, whatever nerve damage I
was still experiencing was as good as it was going to get as any new nerve
regeneration was unlikely. It was at this time that I hit my lowest mentally.
The fear that THIS.WAS. IT was overwhelming. The way this fear manifested itself
was severe with irrational anxieties. Every car journey became a difficult
experience where all I could imagine was having a tyre blow out, the engine
setting on fire or causing a crash. Leaving home became riddled with fears about
the tumble dryer catching on fire and killing my two dogs. Night times lasted
forever as I battled with thoughts about how anyone would ever want to be
with me, how I could physically have children etc 


My now husband recognised these changes in me and with the support of Help
for Heroes I undertook a one on one course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
to address the anxiety. At the same time I undertook a swimming course run
by Help for Heroes as part of their Sport for Recovery program. This opened up a
whole new world of using sport to recover physically and mentally.

It was always the easy to option to use my injuries as a reason why I couldn’t
do things. Getting back in the pool became about what I could do. As a result of
the damage to my right leg, I had no control of my right leg whilst swimming.
It was just a dead weight. This made breastroke impossible in the normal way
but learning to swim the stroke without using my legs was an enjoyable
challenge. Swimming backstroke was hard to hold a straight line but learning
and adapting techniques quickly showed huge improvements in my times. This
was the catalyst that took her to the Invictus Games in Orlando where she
represented Team GB and won a gold medal and 3 silver medals.


I have tried to limit the impact living with pain has on me and those around me.
I notice that when someone puts their back out for a few days for example,
they can moan and groan and after a few days it’s gone. I
recognise that you can’t live like that long term as it would become quite
draining for me, my family and it actually doesn’t achieve anything. The downside
of this is that it normalises my pain and often even those closest can forget some
of my daily struggles. It has taken a lot of learning and communication between
me and my partner to recognise when I need to ask for help and when I
need to be supported.

Pain medication has played it’s part in my pain management but whilst pregnant
and breastfeeding I was unable to take any of the drugs that made a
difference. This forced me to consider other ways to manage my pain. This
included attending pain management courses, learning sleep and relaxation
techniques, taking up Pilates, understanding my pain on a completely new, more profound level.
Although it was initially one of the hardest things to do (get of the drugs and
sleeping tablets) it has changed my quality of life for the better as I learned
that I could actually cope without them which was liberating.

Fast forward to today and I am expecting my second baby any day now. This
would have been unimaginable two years ago. Living my life the way I
choose hasn’t come without it’s challenges. Two pregnancies have taken its' toll
physically on my injuries and some things have had to give. One thing that has
remained a constant is my belief that strength & conditioning is what keeps
me going and allows me to continue with a positive mind set and enjoyable life.
My attitude is my greatest strength and I recognise that it is not always as
simple as that for everyone. I think that being surrounded by fellow
Invictus team mates gave me a useful perspective not only of her own injuries
but seeing how these incredible men and women were thriving living with
unimaginable injuries. It made me want to be better at being inured and living
with long term chronic pain.


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