Okay. You’re in constant pain, so you take a fair amount of meds to help you get through the day.
But what if there was a way to get through your day with less medication, or maybe even no drugs? Would you be willing to give it a try?
If so, the Women’s Pain Management Program at the Salt Lake City VA may be your ticket to a new life. Not a perfect life, nor a totally pain-free one for that matter. Just a better life.
In the photo above, a young Veteran examines a dose of Naloxone, a life-saving medication that can bring you back from the brink of an opioid overdose. It’s one of the many things patients learn about while participating in the program in Salt Lake City.
“I feared the day I would learn that a patient in my care had accidentally overdosed on prescription opioids,” said Jamie Clinton-Lont, a nurse practitioner who serves as Medical Director for Women’s Services at Salt Lake City. “The thought was paralyzing, and it was this fear that fueled the creation of our pain management program for women. I just knew there had to be a better way to help patients battling chronic pain.”
The nurse practitioner noted, however, that while several women in her program have weaned themselves off opioids altogether, most are still on pain medication.
“But medications are only one piece of the holistic treatment puzzle,” she explained. “That’s why our program emphasizes the other puzzle pieces such as mindfulness, healthy lifestyles, and exercise. These pursuits can help you reduce the amount of opioids you’re taking by diverting your attention away from the pain and toward healthy, productive activities that make you feel better about yourself, and about life.”
The Women’s Pain Management Program is the brainchild of Clinton-Lont and a co-worker, Cheryl Kaye, who launched the program in 2013. More than 100 women are now participating.
“Our goal is to challenge the patient’s comfort zone, to get you focused on feeling good and finding the life you always hoped to live,” Clinton-Lont said. “This includes opening yourself up to new experiences, making and keeping friendships, and trying new activities you might not otherwise try on your own. Yoga, exercise, and meditation are all a part of that.”
She added: “Chronic pain tends to fade into the background when you’re happy and active.”
Participants in the Women’s Pain Management Program attend a pain education class once every six months. This is where they learn about the meds they are taking and how to take them correctly.
During this class they also get to choose what type of therapy they want to participate in. There are six options: Trauma Sensitive Yoga, Living Well with Chronic Conditions, Managing Stress, Aquatic Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Everyone gets to switch to a different therapy every few months so they can eventually experience all six.
Perception is Reality
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of my favorites,” said Cheryl Kaye, a clinical pharmacist at Salt Lake City and co-creator of the Women’s Pain Management Program. “It teaches patients how to change their unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, thus changing their awareness of pain and helping them develop better coping skills.”
The pharmacist said the ultimate goal is to help women learn how to lead a meaningful life despite the presence of pain that never really goes away.
“Pain,” she said, “should not be allowed to dominate your life.”
Army Veteran Sharon Shiner, 57, agreed.
“I found that my pain was no longer just a part of my life,” she said. “It was my life. I had quit playing with my grandchildren. I had quit painting. I was getting to the point where I couldn’t see what the purpose of life was.”
Adjusting the Sails
Shiner said she suffers from peripheral neuropathy, which involves damage to the nerves; as well as fibromyalgia, a medical condition characterized by chronic, widespread pain.
“It’s like having the flu,” she said. “Everything aches. And it aches 24 hours-a-day.”
The Army Veteran said the Women’s Pain Management Program has turned her life around.
“They taught me that you have to change your way of thinking,” she said. “You have to look at life differently. You have to learn to live in the moment. They taught me that you can’t control the wind, but you can adjust the sails.”
Shiner said that because she now understands how to adjust the sails, she can once again do things she thought she’d never do again.
“I took up oil painting about eight years ago, and I loved it,” she said. “But then these diseases hit me. Sitting for too long would cause pain. Any movement in my arms would cause pain. I got where I associated painting with pain, so I gave it up. Then, after getting into this program, I realized I didn’t have to get it done all at once. I realized it didn’t have to be all or nothing…
“Now I sit and paint in small increments,” she continued. “I play with my grandchildren for short stretches. And at Thanksgiving I have everyone bring food instead of me doing it all by myself.”
Wear and Tear
“Life just wears and tears on your body,” observed Army Veteran Donnie James, 64. “I’m a nurse at a long-term care facility, so 40 years of lifting people in and out of bed gets you down after a while. Plus I have diabetes, which doesn’t help.”
James said her favorite part of the Women’s Pain Management Program thus far is the class she’s taking on Living Well with Chronic Conditions.
“They teach you to set a goal and work toward that goal every day,” she explained. “For example, I was having trouble controlling my blood sugar. I work three, 12-hour night shifts, so some days I would just come home and go to sleep because I was so tired. I wouldn’t eat. Or worse, I would eat junk and then go to sleep. I was a bad eater. I love cookies and I love Twinkies. So my blood sugars were up and down and all over the place….
“But the class helped me focus on what I needed to do: take five minutes, test my blood sugar and eat something that’s good for me before I go to sleep.”
“It makes you feel powerful, knowing what exacerbates your pain and knowing how to control it.”
James said she also learned how important it is to slow down a bit.
“I was in a bad cycle,” she admitted. “I’d feel pressure to get all these things done while I was awake. So then I’d overdo it and feel even worse the next day. Now I’ve learned that it’s okay if everything doesn’t get done. The world will go on. Those are my words of wisdom now…. the world will go on.”
Not a Believer
“I thought their chronic pain program was a bunch of crap,” said 37-year-old Miranda McClurg, a Marine Corps Veteran. “I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t a believer. But once I got into the program I realized they weren’t trying to take my pain meds away. They just want to make sure I’m taking them safely.”
McClug said the source of her pain is the surgery she had on her spine about eight years ago. She’s been on and off pain killers ever since.
“Right now I’m taking a class called Managing Stress,” she said. “They teach you that you’re in control of your pain, not the other way around. They teach you about deep breathing, and how being active can increase your endorphins. They teach you to be aware of what your stressors are, because stress and depression make your pain feel worse. They teach you how to focus on a place of well-being instead of your pain. This class really turned me around. I look at my pain differently now.”
The Marine Corps Veteran said she was surprised to learn how life’s simple, everyday challenges can actually intensify any pain you might already be experiencing.
“They taught me that a lot of it is mental,” she said. “Money problems, having a fight with your ex, stuff like that. So when I get stressed I’ll just do some deep breathing, or I’ll do my stretching exercises, or I’ll go outside and get some fresh air. Or I’ll go pet my puppy and talk to him.”
Have a question about VA benefits and services available to you? Contact the Women Veterans Call Center at 1-855.VA.WOMEN or visit them at www.womenshealth.va.gov/WOMENSHEALTH/programoverview/wvcc.asp