Have you ever had a bad injury: pinched nerve, pulled muscle, broken bone, unrelenting cramp? Nociception is what lets you know. It's our body's programmed alarm system, sort of like a smoke detector, but instead of sound, it’s screeching pain. As soon as the central nervous system detects change above a safe threshold, the alarm goes off and it can’t be ignored. Four weeks ago, nociception stopped me in my tracks.
The intensity of the signal was hobbling. I couldn't sit or stand without pain; it was constant and unyielding. Wait. Is that true?
My dad used to tell a joke about a mechanic fixing the broken windshield wipers on a car. After a lot of clanking, grinding and adjusting, the mechanic, still with his head under the hood, called to the driver, "Try the wipers. Are they working?" Focused on being completely accurate, the driver responded,
"They're working, not working.
Working, not working.
Working, not working."
When I focus on being completely accurate, that's my experience of pain... It's here, not here. Here, not here. Here, not here.
In the beginning, even the briefest moments of “no pain” were precious gifts. So I began to seek them out. I could count on nociception to alert me to pain... and believe me, there were moaning, sobbing times when, what was diagnosed as a compressed nerve, shrieked so shrilly that it blocked all other awareness. My right leg became an all-encompassing point of pain, an awkward weight that couldn't move without stabbing nociception. Lying down was pain free, but lowering my body into a flat position seemed impossibly complicated.
In the grand scheme of things, a pinched nerve is not a serious ailment. But you wouldn’t know that by the pain level. Scary adjectives attach easily to it, like: chronic pain, penetrating pain, and constant pain. And conversations about pain always include the concept of endurance and suffering. People talk about pain as if it's a villain, not a signal. They even add a possessive adjective. They ask, "How's your pain?" like I placed a wrong order on Amazon and it arrived monogrammed so it’s a permanent possession! If I was struck by lightning, would it be "my lightning?"
Few people embrace my windshield wiper view of pain. There's so much more of a charge when "it's here" rather than the void when "it's not here." So I monitored nociception to learn what lights the fire of pain and what extinguishes it. Since I was immobilized with only a phone to keep me company, I had time to examine when pain is and isn’t present. Here’s what I learned:
- When I was engaged in an interesting conversation, there was total immersion. Pain became like the temperature of the room, unobtrusive and in the background.
- When there was a lull in the conversation, and my attention was free, it immediately went to evaluate the quality and quantity of pain or no pain. And more often than not, when I looked for it, pain rose to fill the emptiness.
- When I anticipated a sneeze, there was fear of future pain. I waited, and waited. No sneeze; a huge sigh of relief! Suddenly the sneeze exploded and with it an expletive “&#%!” Then nociception at a pain level of 9, very slowly settling to 8, then 7, 6, and rapidly reducing in intensity 5,4,3,2,1… to, no pain.
- There were many emails to read. I was totally engaged in the content and the task of composing responses. No pain.
- I watched the thought arise, "I’d like to roll over.” And with it came fear. Could I stay in the moment and not project remembered pain from the past into the future? By the time I considered it all, the thought about rolling over disappeared.
- Some mornings I ate my favourite muffin for breakfast savouring every crumb of this special treat. No pain.
I'm probably playing word games to dance with the fear that can come with pain. I've discovered nociception, the wise "uh oh" signal that forces us to a sudden stop. What happens next? We can bring in experts skilled in diagnosing, collaborating and healing. And we can do our own investigating. I may be an ostrich hiding my head in the sand, or more likely, a wanna-be mechanic with my head under the hood, but I like exploring the nature of pain through my own experience.
Right now, it’s not here.