Dealing With Nerve Pain, A Personal Perspective
Last updated: January 2019
Cancer patients have a wide variety of potential nerve issues. Some are caused by treatment, others directly by the cancer itself, and perhaps yet more are the result of ancillary issues and overall mechanical or structural changes that take place within a patient's body. Oftentimes the pain will not subside with a singular approach, and even pegging down the cause takes time (and money) before an effective solution can be found.
Increasing Sciatic Nerve Pain
Since beginning treatment for my Stage IV lung cancer, I have had many types of pain come and go (and sometimes return again). Some pains have lingered virtually unnoticed because they were overshadowed by other issues, influencing the background of how I felt, perhaps, but mostly ignored at the conscious level. There was an old joke about the best way to get over a headache is by dropping a brick on your foot, or something like that, and in a way the logic holds true: the sharper, more localized pain will often shift focus away from other types of pain, making a person "forget" about them as long as the new pain persists.
In recent weeks, my sciatic nerve has caused an increasing amount of frustration. In addition to excruciating pain, it can affect life in a number of ways. It limits mobility -- especially in small ways, like bending to put on socks. It wakes me multiple times throughout the night and prevents me from falling back to sleep. I find it hard to sit at my desk and focus on work for extended periods, partly from the pain and partly from being sleepy.
There is an interconnected web of pain that runs down my entire left side, exasperating an old pulled muscle in my back, a strain in my arm, mild neuropathy and edema affecting my feet and ankles, inflamed toes with infected nail beds, and now a hip that feels consistently out of place. I know that at least some of my current issues originate with my medication. The neuropathy is a residual effect from my years of chemotherapy, the infected nail beds appear to be caused by my current targeted medication. The new issues with sciatica may be caused directly from tumor growth pressing on the nerve or by a problem with a disk in my spine -- itself a possible byproduct of muscular atrophy that has occurred during my treatment cycles.
Using a Varied Approach to Manage the Pain
To treat the pain, I have the obvious choice of taking pills. And after dealing with lung cancer for over three years, I have no shortage of prescription options. But taking pills comes with a certain responsibility, especially when there are issues of potential addiction or dependency. Sometimes, they are necessary just to ensure I get enough sleep, but other times I try to get relief in ways that do not involve drugs.
I use a TENS unit, which works by attaching electrodes to the skin and sending electrical pulses to the muscles. This is a great way to get temporary relief of sore muscles and it also helps to build tone muscles in a gentle manner. There are various objects that help to realign the spine that work for some people to alleviate back pain, and a flexible seat cover has shown some promise for me (though I have also used braces and supports of different types). Stretching is always a good idea, with the added benefit of also helping the lymphatic system. And, oddly, moving around seems to help me the most. Walking and even rollerblading has decreased the pain significantly -- though it comes back when I am sitting and especially when I am lying down.
Ultimately, by keeping these various techniques in rotation, I am able to keep the pain manageable. It ebbs and flows, but it does not go away entirely. To further deal with it, I have scheduled an MRI so that, hopefully, a direct cause can be isolated and dealt with. Getting one major pain out of the way, whether through radiation or surgery or simple mechanical manipulation, will allow me to go down to the next item on the list. Check one issue off, it is time to address the next. Perhaps it will be those inflamed toes, or maybe there is something I am just not noticing right now because it is overshadowed. Either way, dealing with the nerve pain, even a small step at a time, will be an enormous relief.
Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
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