When living with chronic pain or a chronic illness, patients are sometimes unaware of other health problems because they are so used to pain and feeling unwell.
For example, someone could have a dental abscess or an ear infection, but they think their trigeminal neuralgia is flaring up. Or a back pain sufferer might not realise their pain is actually coming from a kidney infection. The fatigue someone is dealing with thinking it’s down to side effects of medication might actually be a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
It’s very easy for someone with chronic pain or illness to put up with symptoms thinking they are normal.
This happened to me two years ago.
I was Used to Feeling Unwell
My back pain was bad. That was normal. I had pain across the front of my body. Again, that was normal as I live with rib pain. I felt very lightheaded, but my blood pressure is often low, especially when my pain is severe. I had stomach pain and was feeling generally unwell, but medication often makes me feel that way. I just wanted to lie down and sleep. Pain can be tiring, so that wasn’t unusual.
There was no point in seeing the doctor, was there? I was in pain and feeling fairly unwell, but that was normal for me.
My husband was concerned and talked me into seeing the doctor. I expected my GP to tell me off for wasting his time but he didn’t. On checking, he discovered that my blood pressure was dangerously low. It was so low that he arranged an ambulance to take me to the hospital rather than allow my husband to take me. He didn’t know what was making me ill or causing my pain, but he said I needed to be in the hospital urgently.
The hospital did various tests and gave me morphine injections for the pain. By the evening, I was feeling better and I thought they’d let me go home, but something showed in a blood test which meant I needed to stay in the hospital.
I was put onto an IV drip with a nil by mouth card behind my bed. A nurse from the high dependency unit told me that she and her colleagues would be doing checks on me every few hours.
I didn’t question anything. I hadn’t asked what had shown in my blood test. I didn’t even wonder why a high dependency unit nurse was checking on me. My morphine infused brain had made me so laid back that nothing phased me.
By the morning, I was a wee bit concerned. A surgeon came to speak to me and explained that I had acute pancreatitis. He said that one of the main causes of pancreatitis is drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. That was ruled out quickly. I take a lot of medication, so I don’t drink alcohol at all. He then said the other main cause was gallstones. He asked if I’d ever had gallbladder problems. I hadn’t, but he was convinced that was the problem.
An ultrasound scan confirmed his diagnosis, showing multiple gallstones. Because the gallstones were causing pancreatitis, I needed surgery to have my gallbladder removed.
What is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis (an inflamed pancreas) can range from mild discomfort to severe pain in the upper abdomen, radiating through to the back. In some cases, it can not only result in serious damage to the pancreas, but it can also harm other vital organs. It can be an extremely serious, life-threatening condition.
The blood test they’d done the previous day had checked the amylase score. A score of between 10 and 90 is normal. My amylase score was over 3,600 – not even nearly normal.
That score, along with my symptoms, indicated that I had pancreatitis.
My pancreas had to be rested, hence the reason I was on an IV drip and wasn’t allowed to eat. Even though I feeling better, I was told that I could suddenly become seriously ill, which was why I needed to be monitored carefully.
Pain is normal for me
I am used to living with pain. I am used to feeling unwell at times. Because of that, I thought I was just having a bad day. But I had a potentially serious illness.
I had keyhole surgery a couple of days later to remove my gallbladder. The surgeon said that it had been large and badly scarred and he was sure I must have been living with pain from it for a long time. But if I had been, I had never been aware of it. And that was because I was used to having pain in that area.
It Wasn’t Quite Over
The day after my operation, I was sent home. Two weeks later, I was still in a lot of pain, but that was to be expected surely? Perfectly normal? My GP didn’t think it was and had me readmitted to hospital.
An ultrasound showed that my organs were looking fine. The pancreas was healthy, thank goodness. But an x-ray showed a broken rib. I have no idea how I had a broken rib, but I have osteoporosis, so fractures can happen fairly easily.
A few weeks later, I recovered and was back to dealing with my normal pain. However, the whole experience did leave me with the realisation that ‘normal’ pain or illness could actually be something more than that. It could be a worrying problem when people are used to living with pain or illness.
How do you know when to see a doctor if you are used to pain or illness?
- Learn about your condition so you know what to expect. If you have symptoms which aren’t normal for that condition, see your doctor.
- Learn about your own typical symptoms. (Using a pain diary helps with this). If something is different from your normal, speak a doctor. Give as good an explanation as possible. Tell the doctor everything, including the small details. Sometimes those small details are important.
- If you feel that something just isn’t right, trust your gut instinct, and see the doctor.
- If your best friend were to experience your symptoms, what would your advice be? If your answer is “see a doctor”, take your own advice.
- Don’t ignore new or worrying symptoms. Tell your doctor.
Do you worry that your doctor will think you’re wasting their time? Don’t. My doctor reassured me about that. She said that when you are used to living with pain, you need to be extra vigilant.
I don’t want people to panic about their health when reading my story. I just want people to be aware that when you are used to pain or illness, it’s easy not to notice when something else is wrong. It’s always better to be safe and get checked out.
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