Pacing For Beginners

Pacing in the context of managing our pain relates to our rate of activity or our performance progress. In this article I am using walking (that’s why the feet!) as an illustration, but the same logic can be applied to sitting, standing, resistance (weight) training or whatever activity it is that we are having trouble doing to the level we want to. The activity might be sweeping the kitchen floor, or sitting long enough to fly interstate. Walking is just the example here.

As I have shared previously, when I was first started on this journey, I walked five minutes at a time, four times a day. Five minutes was how long I could manage before I experienced pain. Slowly, by pacing, we can build up.

Please be aware pacing is only one component of condition management, it is not THE solution. This is a general introduction only, each person requires specific planning tailored to their circumstances.

Warning: Maths Ahead

Let’s assume for the maths that like I could, you can walk five minutes before you experience discomfort. It is very important to know your starting point. Smartphones have easy calculators: the keystrokes for the below example are 5 + 4 = 9 / 2 = 4.5 * .8 = 3.6.

The important point here is just because you CAN do 5 minutes, that is NOT the starting point.

    1. Take that five minutes as your Test 1 measurement.
    2. After a suitable rest, do a second Test. The Test 2 result might be four minutes.
    3. Add 5 + 4 = 9. To find the average of your two trials: 9/2 = 4.5 minutes.
    4. Now you need your baseline, your official starting point. This is 80% of your average. 4.5 * 0.8 = 3.6 minutes, or 3 minutes 36 seconds.
    5. Increase at a rate of 10% from your baseline. 3.6 * 1.1 = 3.96 minutes. Let’s just call it 4 minutes!

Each day (or week depending on the type of activity) you increase by 10%. JUST 10%. On your calculator that is “current time” * 1.1 = “new time”.

10% a day increase is reasonable at a 5 minute walk, but for longer durations and other activities, the increase should be spread over a week.

Putting Pacing into Practice

How does this work in practice? I did some timings on a stroll the other day. It took me 217 steps and 1 minute 48 seconds to walk from one tram stop to the next.

What is a tram, you ask? I’m glad you asked! This is a Melbourne tram. Terrific mode of city transport.

If you don’t have trams in your area, do you have an alternative?

Why was I doing the timings? Because we can use local infrastructure to our advantage. After a while you will get very bored with your backyard or walking around the same block. Tram lines are fantastic because we can walk, hop on a tram for a rest, get off further down the line preferably within one or two metres of a nice cafe, finish our rest over a nice coffee and then repeat the exercise back.

As we build up, we can use the distance between trams stops as stepping stones. Looking at my 1 minute 48 second walk between stops cited above, that is way more than a 10% increase from a 4 minute baseline. That would be closer to 50%, WAY too much. But later on it will be possible. You are not stuck on 4 minutes for long! As you build up you can walk just past a tram stop then back and still catch a tram to reward yourself with coffee. Over time you will be reaching the next tram stop.

A little reconnaissance may be necessary. This is the tram stop I was passing. In the middle of a busy main road, there are lots of steps up from the pavement, an over-bridge and then more steps down. This may not be ideal for those pacing up slowly! This is one of the tram stops you might want to zoom straight past – as a passenger!

Of course there are many alternatives: drive to a favourite park or beach, then walk. I don’t suggest the shopping centre, as it could take 20 minutes to walk from the car park to your store of choice!

The Rules

Rule #1: stick to the times. DO NOT be tempted to do more than you should, despite how great you might feel right that minute. You risk undoing all your hard work to date if you do that.

Rule #2: do it every day. Even if you don’t feel the best today, do your allotted time. Every day. Note this is for these small starting activites. I would NOT do a leg press every day!

Rule #3: Wear appropriate footwear. If it is sitting you are working on, ensure you have an appropriate chair.

Other Thoughts

I also apply pacing strategies to manage the fatigue, along the lines of how much I do on any given day. I’ve mentioned before I don’t do grocery shopping on days I do a strength workout. I don’t do strength workouts the days I work eight hours in the office. We work out rules for our individual circumstances.

Christine Miserandino (lupus and fibromyalgia) has written The Spoon Theory which is a great way to visualise the energy/fatigue situation. I found it very early on in my journey and it certainly helped me adjust to my new life. I do have many more spoons these days than I used to, but that didn’t happen overnight.

Challenges of Living Alone with Chronic Conditions

If you have newly discovered you have a chronic illness/condition/disease AND you live alone, there are challenges patients living with family don’t face to the same degree. Some of the items below I have mentioned before, but today I am looking at the specific circumstances of living alone, which can complicate matters. While we may not have children or a partner to care for (in some ways making life a little easier perhaps), the flip side of living alone means no-one to make us a nice cuppa, to help us make the bed (or let us off the hook entirely), or to just snuggle up to for comfort.

Even if we have a nice neighbour to call on for help (as I have done from time to time), we may need to plan our activities very carefully. It is easy to fall back into the boom-bust cycle, both physically (pain) and psychologically (the stress), especially in the early days. We aren’t used to the “new me” at all, we tend to think of it a bit like having the ‘flu, we’ll just get over it. No, sorry, this is here to stay (unless we go into remission, which is possible in some cases). We can learn to manage it, yes. In time and with practice.

Today I’m asking you to carefully consider the physical and practical aspects of managing day-to-day tasks. It WILL get easier as your treatment starts to work and you build up your resilience over time, learn to pace and build up (or build back) your strength, but today we are talking about the beginning, when we are adjusting to living this new life. These are some of the things I wish I’d known in the early days.

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping can be a challenge. Yes, I could order on-line and have my groceries delivered, but that costs money: if we live alone we don’t usually buy enough to qualify for free delivery! It is OK to carry the bags in from the car one at a time if necessary – or even half a bag at a time. Take the frozen stuff first, in case you need a rest between loads. Once you get stronger this will improve – but don’t try to do what you used to do before, not until your body is ready. If we struggle to carry in all the bags at once, where do we go? Yep, back into that pain boom-bust cycle.

Shop more frequently if possible and necessary.

Showering

I remember standing in the bathroom in tears when my shoulders were playing up badly. I could not dry my back after my shower. It wasn’t just the pain, it was the inhibited range of motion. Also, this was out of the blue, completely unexpected. Situations like that can make fears of the future rise up and cause anxiety, anger and frustration. Living alone means we have no-one to talk to about those fears right there and then, no-one to comfort us in our time of stress. Also, no-one to dry our back. Mindfulness exercises will help. Relax our mind and relax our muscles – often times that is just enough so we can complete the task at hand. That alone makes us feel better.

Bath sheets instead of bath towels are very useful. Being larger, not so much shoulder movement is needed to dry one’s back. While there is a lot of technology out there to assist people, I haven’t found anything yet that helps dry one’s back. I admit I haven’t looked very hard because the problem was not ongoing for me.

The unexpected can happen. Negotiating our ablutions, unexpected events or not, can be a challenge. Putting prescribed skin cream on areas you can’t see, for example, can be a bother to say the least.

Changing the Bed Linen

I’ve mentioned before that changing the bed linen used to wipe me out. But there is no-one else to do it, so it is either manage it somehow or sleep in dirty sheets – not the best option. Break it down over the day. Get the linen off the bed (I find that not too difficult) early, then do the rest spaced out over the day if necessary. Put on the bottom sheet, go away and do something else or rest. An hour later tackle the top sheet. If putting on the new doona cover is too hard to do in one hit, break that down too. It is OK, you are the only one seeing your messy bedroom! You have all day to get the bed back together! If we give in to the “I must do it now” story to do our bed in one hit, where do we go? Yep, back into that pain boom-bust cycle.

Above is Cleo, very comfy in her little fluffy igloo. She feels safe and warm and protected. We need to feel the same, we just don’t need to cause ourselves a flare getting there.

Our Hair

For anyone with long hair, this can be a challenge, especially if our shoulders are involved in our condition, or if standing causes pain (a chair in front of the mirror would solve the standing issue). Blow drying long hair can take twenty minutes or so, our arms raised for much of that time. On a bad day just don’t do it – letting your hair dry naturally is not a crime, the fashion police will not issue a citation. Actually, no, the fashion police might very well issue a citation, but WHO CARES! Our path to regaining our functional movement and managing our pain is WAY more important than someone caring about our hairstyle. If we force ourselves to do our hair to meet social expectations, where do we go? Yep, back into that pain boom-bust cycle.

Dishes and Ironing

Ironing is easy – I’ve talked about that before – just don’t do it. One item when you need it, that’s enough. Although sitting may be a solution, I find I don’t get enough pressure happening so the clothes don’t look “done”.

A fellow patient I know says it takes her three tries to get the dishes done, with rests in between. Standing is a major source of pain for her at this time. It is what it is – if you have to wash a plate at a time, so be it. Build up to two plates. In time you should be back to being able to do all the dishes at once, but feeling guilty because you can’t now is not going to help. Wash anything you use as soon as you use it is a strategy I adopt most of the time. Living alone we tend not to generate a dinner wash of six plates and cups, which is a good thing. If you have a dishwasher, I hate you already (I don’t).

Cooking

Cooking is a little different. We need to ensure we are eating healthy, nutritious food: the two main reasons are to enable our body to fight this battle the best it can and to minimise or reverse any weight gains due to medications and our reduced activity levels, thereby protecting our joints and internal organs. Unfortunately, cooking is not necessarily as easy to spread over the day as other tasks can be.

We need to plan our food preparation so we don’t do more than we should at any given time. We may simply have to give up some of our favourite dishes – for a while – if they require lengthy preparation. There is NO point in spending a painful hour preparing something only to be too exhausted or in too much pain to actually enjoy the fruits of our labour. Don’t put yourself through it. Console yourself with the knowledge that a dish requiring less preparation is probably a healthier dish anyway!

This is where living alone can actually be a plus, as we aren’t faced with anyone complaining about the “plain” food. Then again, someone else could be cooking for us! It is what it is, just please eat healthy, nutritionally balanced meals!

If you can afford it (many of us, having reduced our working hours due to our conditions, can not) delivered meals such as Lite n’ Easy can be a great solution, at least to have some in the freezer as a standby. I use my slow cooker to cook six meals at a time and freeze five. My freezer is bulging with pork, beef and lamb meals which take seven minutes to defrost and three minutes to heat in the microwave. Lifesavers if I have a tiring day at work. I’ve been known to boil two eggs and have them with a steam fresh bag of vegetables if all else fails.

I never peel potatoes or carrots, the skins are good for us anyway. I’m not allowed green beans or onions, so I avoid a lot of slicing and dicing. There are great kitchen appliances available to make these things quick and easy. Make Christmas present requests. I know two people who are stroke survivors, both need to manage with one hand and have quite a few utensils that are very useful. Look at what is available that will make food preparation easier for you.

General Housework

One thing to avoid is the temptation to clean up like a whirling dervish if visitors are coming. Try to spread out doing tasks over the week and have a room you can just chuck stuff in if need be and close the door! “OMG, Jane’s coming over, I must have a pristine home” is a recipe for disaster, especially in the early days when you are learning your new life. Most of us who have worked all our lives are very much into the routine of spending a good part of our weekend doing everything: clean the bathroom, dusting, vacuuming, clean the oven, maybe mow the lawns, wash the floors, change the linen, do the laundry, ironing for the week ahead, grocery shopping and THEN we used to add some socialising on top of all that.

socialising is important
I do get to socialise! It is important.

Ummmm – not a good plan any more. It doesn’t matter what your major symptom is; pain, lethargy or other. Trying to do it all is not going to help. Stop. Don’t be tempted. We have no-one to delegate tasks to and can be so tempted to do it all at once, to feel we HAVE to at least try to appear “normal”. No we don’t. We have a new normal now. If Jane is a really good friend, she is not going to care if your place doesn’t look like Martha Stewart’s been your housekeeping consultant, Jane is going to care how you are feeling, how your health is.

Summary

Look, all that and I haven’t mentioned exercise once! I am now. No, I don’t write template exercise routines and publish them because that, I believe, is inappropriate for my client base. Every single one of us is different. Different conditions, different stages, different trouble spots in our bodies. It is important we make sure we have time to build our physical condition though, in ways appropriate for us as individuals. This is NOT a luxury any more so we can look good on the beach come Christmas holidays, this is now a necessity.

Living alone can make exercise harder. No-one to motivate us or support us. No-one to take that first short walk with us. It can be easier to just turn on the TV and hide from the world.

All the above careful planning of our activities will be for naught if we don’t build conditioning into our routine. Even before I did any formal exercise or pain management studies, I learnt very early on if I moved, my stiffness and pain receded. That’s what led me to learn more. Why was it so? How much better could I get?

Have I had bad patches? Of course I have. I remember the shower incident mentioned above, another day I was woken up by pain in my right arm that was excruciating, a day I lay down for fifteen minutes and then couldn’t get off the bed. Overall am I better now than I was in late 2014? Definitely. So. Much. Better.

For Melbournites, yesterday I walked from the corner of Nicholson St and Victoria Parade to Federation Square. Stopped, had a coffee (very nice Bailey’s Latte it was too), then walked to the Arts Centre.

Bailey's Latte
This was SO delicious.

Three years ago I was on crutches.

Sheila Constance Lacey

Science is Not Static

Fifty years ago my mother (above, photo 1949) was admitted to hospital for exploratory surgery. To see if she had cancer. Today a very dear friend of mine is bravely fighting cancer: he is in week two of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A scalpel hasn’t been near him yet. There will be surgery, but the diagnosis hasn’t required surgery. We have ways to look inside the body that we didn’t have in my mother’s time.

It Began With Sudden Blackouts. Then Came Some Alarming News is about a woman’s survival today that would not have been possible fifty years ago. G.C.M. is a rare autoimmune disease.

It was giant-cell myocarditis (G.C.M.), the most dangerous of the possibilities. This mysterious and deadly autoimmune disease has only been diagnosable before autopsy since the development of the heart biopsy some 50 years ago. Effective treatment has only recently emerged.

In Get the Stress Out of Your Life I talk about another RA patient I met at the gym. I can’t help but wonder had he been diagnosed in this era, rather than over twenty years ago, would his outcomes have been different?

Many people will remember thalidomide. Thought initially to be a great drug for treating morning sickness during pregnancy, it caused babies to be born with limb deformities.

About 40% of babies damaged by the effects of thalidomide died in their first year. But there are adults alive today who are living with disabilities caused by thalidomide.

Medical science learnt and the drug was no longer prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness.

Medical science continues to learn. There are many articles in the media of late about opioids and addiction. Here are just two recently published; one from the USA, one Australian.

Neither article paints a positive picture. From the latter article:

…health authorities worldwide are grappling with soaring rates of opioid addiction and deadly overdoses. In Australia, the majority of opioid overdose deaths are now related to prescription painkillers rather than heroin.

Earlier in the week I became involved in a discussion on Twitter about alternative approaches to the management of chronic pain. I had just published an article, Our Pain, Our Brain and Our Nervous System. I work very hard to stay off pain killers and am very happy with my progress. In this twitter conversation I was told by an American MD there is no evidence supporting activity as a strategy. I wished my pain clinicians had been in my study so they could have taken over! As I was somewhat outnumbered and I do find 140 characters limiting, I bowed out of the conversation. I felt it didn’t matter what evidence I presented, I was not going to be heard. Two of the participants in that conversation reached out and I am communicating with them individually.

That experience got me thinking. We, both doctors and patients, are happy to use our new imaging technologies. We are grateful there is now a way to save a G.C.M. patient. We embrace biologics such as adalimumab. Why then are some so resistant to the concept there may be other ways to treat chronic pain than pain killers? UK studies have found GPs are “unconfident” discussing exercise with patients. This is perhaps related to the bigger picture.

The Pain Management Research Institute (University of Sydney) offers the ADAPT program.

When no effective or curative treatments are available the person in pain needs to shift their focus from seeking pain-relieving treatments to things they can do something about, despite ongoing pain.

These include increased activities, physical fitness, strength, mood, sleep, reducing reliance on unhelpful medication, developing useful coping strategies, improving relationships at home, getting back to suitable work, etc.

This requires that the person in pain has a good understanding of their pain and accepts the idea of living a normal life despite ongoing pain.

I can attest it doesn’t happen overnight. Yes, it takes effort. But the rewards and results are worth it.

Alternatives to pain killers are definitely worth considering. The programs do have exclusion criteria (refer the ADAPT link above) and people like myself with underlying on-going medical conditions do face additional challenges. It works for so many of us. What have you got to lose? More importantly, what can you gain?

Use of strong pain killers can result in drowsiness – no driving, perhaps unable to work, limits social interaction. One common one makes me and many other people very nauseous to the point all I can do is lie still. Not how I want to live my life. None of the pain killers cure the pain or help me live a normal life. We do less; as a result our bodies de-condition. As a result of that we most likely develop more pain. Weak muscles lead to unstable joints. I can’t build muscle strength if I am lying on the bed too nauseous to move from the use of a pain killer. I got my life back.

Resource:

Manage Your Pain (Australian Pain Management Association)

Our Pain, Our Brain and Our Nervous System

Most of us felt cynical, and disliked the physio and doctors enormously. We’d talk among ourselves, ‘Oh it’s all right for them to tell us so and so, they’re not in pain.’ “Like most in the group, I’d been protecting my painful body, using the old reasoning, if it hurts, rest it. I’d bundle my arms around me and pick things up with my toes. My life had become massively restricted.” Source: Barbara’s Story The University of Sydney

That is Barbara Walker speaking about her initial introduction to a new approach to managing her chronic pain (see definition below). While Barbara was skeptical, the approach worked so well she and her family were instrumental in establishing the centre in Melbourne.

The following short video covers a lot in five minutes, please do take the time to watch it.

I was very surprised to learn 1 in 5 people worldwide suffer chronic pain. This is not a small percentage of the population. Think of all the people in your family, your workplace and your circle of friends. 100 people? I like round numbers. So it is statistically probable 20 are suffering or will suffer chronic pain.

I am writing this as a patient, just like you or someone you know. My objective today is to highlight there are evidence based approaches to living with chronic pain which you may like to consider. Referral information and other details about the Barbara Walker Centre for Pain Management are found on this St Vincent’s web page for those in Melbourne.

Because I am not qualified to speak on the topics of neuroplasticity or the finer points of nerve receptors and neurotransmitters, I’m not going to. This is actually sad, because I’d LOVE to, it is interesting and exciting stuff! It is also very specialised and the multi-disciplinary team have many years of clinical experience. Providing patients with an in-depth understanding of how pain works is a vital component of this approach to improving our quality of life. The relationship between our nervous system and our brain is very much a part of the solution. No, the pain isn’t “all in our heads” – but our brain is involved.

Ask yourself what are all the things you have tried to date? Has your quality of life improved as a result, or has there been only brief periods of respite? How often have you felt you had to choose between taking pain meds OR going to work, because invariably doing both is not an option? Is it worth trying something different, as Barbara did in 1995? As I have done and continue to do.

I feel as if I’m writing an advertorial for others, when if I should be writing one for anyone, it should be for my services! The truth is, while exercise and movement are part of the equation, there are other variables, some of the practical ones I have addressed in previous introductory articles. I would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to the work being done and the support available in this sphere. After all, I didn’t know of pain centres until I was referred by a general practitioner.

Chronic pain is defined as pain that continues after the initial cause of the pain (injury, surgery, inflammation etc) has healed. Those of us with chronic conditions/illnesses/diseases may have ongoing causes of pain – so perhaps a mix of chronic and acute pain but the approach should still help us.

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