My Pain Meds Story

As a child with rheumatoid arthritis, the strongest pain medications I remember taking were over the counter. I didn’t discover that pain medications and I don’t mix well until I had my first joint replacement surgeries as a teenager.

When I had my hips replaced the morphine drip made my head foggy and my tummy nauseous. I quickly quit the morphine and was downgraded to a less potent drug. When I had my knee replacements, the anesthesiologist miscalculated my cocktail dosage by not taking into account my small weight and I had serious complications, including mood changes, hallucinations, and eventually seizures.

Thankfully the medical team identified the problem after I started seizing, but it was a close call and a dangerous situation. What started out for me as a discomfort with pain medications quickly turned into a wish to avoid them all together.

I didn’t like how pain medications affected my mind. And it also seemed to me that my body reacted to them poorly, with nausea and worse. I truly think it is something about my chemistry that does not agree with pain medications.

A number of years later I was seeing a new rheumatologist who was shocked that I wasn’t taking any pain medication as part of my RA treatment. I was just on a course of NSAIDs at the time because my RA was relatively quiet. He convinced me that I would be more comfortable if I took some pain medication every day and started me on Tramadol.

At first, it was nice as I felt my aches less. But gradually the medication became a problem for me. I kept nodding my head at my desk. And then, embarrassingly, a colleague teased me about dozing momentarily during a meeting. I turned beet red, but couldn’t find the words to explain that it was my new medication. I spoke with the doctor about the drowsiness, but I was already on the lowest possible dose. Then not long after, he fired me as a patient and I had to find a new rheumatologist.

With all these negative experiences trying pain medications, I stayed away from them for many years. I worked with my rheumatologist to treat my RA and decided to focus on other pain management approaches, such as yoga, aqua therapy, gentle stretching, meditation, breathing, massage, and acupuncture, among others. For me, pain medications just didn’t work due to the side effects that impacted my thinking, body, and quality of life.

A few years ago I underwent knee revision surgery, which ended up being two surgeries a couple months apart. The first time I was able to get an epidural, which controlled my pain pretty well and was short lived enough not to cause complications. The second surgery was trickier because they couldn’t get the epidural in and so I had IV medications like morphine. Again, it made me ill and my head foggy and so I had to taper off quickly.

During the between surgeries period and the post-surgical recovery and rehabilitation I was taking a combination of OxyContin and Vicodin. The pills were timed out to provide some continuous relief and help me tolerate physical therapy. While they didn’t make me sick, I noticed definite fog in my mind and relayed that to my husband. I wanted him to understand that my mood and judgment could be altered because of the medications and to keep a watch on me to prevent me from making poor decisions.

Personally, I didn’t like how these pain medications made me feel, but I knew that I needed them to treat my acute surgical pain. I wound them down fairly rapidly and my doctor was surprised when I was no longer taking them at a follow-up appointment.

Managing pain is a very personal experience. For me, it has been a journey of discovering that pain medications generally don’t agree with my body and that I prefer other methods of coping with my chronic RA pain. I cannot say that I am a master at it. Rather, I view it as a process of using multiple methods to understand and manage my pain. With the severity of my RA, I experience pain every day to greater or lesser degrees in an ever-changing variation of joints. But my pain is also now a part of me and for the most part, I am fortunate to live with it in a wary truce.

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