A former operating theatre nurse whose career was cut short by an agonising spinal injury that led to 19 years on opioid painkillers, has gained a new lease of life after taking part in a health initiative that aims to help people living with chronic pain.
Helen Banks, 51, from Morton, near Bourne in Lincolnshire, has lived with debilitating pain since injuring her back at work in 2004, at the age of 34.
Not only did the pain prevent her from continuing in the profession she loved, but she was prescribed medication that left her drowsy, and limited what she could do further.
But now she has cut down on her use of drugs to the extent that life has opened up for her and she now has the energy to do many things that were impossible a year ago.
The turnaround came about as a result of her attending events organised by Flippin’ Pain™ – a campaign that aims to change the way we think about and treat persistent pain – and a pain clinic in Stamford delivered by community healthcare services provider Connect Health, that gave her new strategies to help her cope.
After the events, Helen listened to talks by Flippin’ Pain™ community health champion and pain expert Professor Cormac Ryan that shifted her outlook on the situation.
As a result of what she learned, she decided to come off the Oxycodone she was taking and with a gradual programme and the support of her GP, Helen has achieved her aim. This February she was able to stop taking the drug completely and this summer, for the first time in eight years, she no longer takes antidepressants.
Now, she says: “I feel more like me.”
And the advice she got from the Connect Health pain clinic has changed the way she manages her activity bringing enormous benefits to her day-to-day life, including how to use her breath to assist with movement.
Helen has undergone surgery three times including a spinal fusion procedure. And four years ago, she was diagnosed with ME, and developed pain all over her body.
At one stage she was taking what she described as a ‘cocktail’ of medication that involved nine tablets in the morning and seven at the end of the day. She would often be drowsy and could even fall asleep during a conversation. But one of the most upsetting consequences was that it was not possible for her to look after her grand-daughter Maisy.
However, resolving to stop the Oxycodone was not an overnight decision. It was a daunting prospect after relying on it for so long. Key to the approach was being kind to herself and using distraction to take her mind away from the feelings and sensations, says Helen.
Among the strategies she has employed is focusing on hobbies she finds rewarding. She has taught herself to crochet and her partner Steve has set her up with a woodworking workshop at home. She said:
You have to find things that you enjoy doing.
She has also learned to manage by pacing herself. That was not easy for Helen, because she found it difficult to gauge in advance how long she might be able to do a task before becoming overwhelmed.
But a technique she learned is to measure her energy rather than the length of time she might do something for. Before embarking on a task, she now asks herself … ‘could I do this twice?’ and if she could, she does it (once), but if doing it twice would feel too much, she knows that doing it even once is not an option right then.
Helen, who suffered her initial injury after a particularly heavy week of work, says:
You do almost have to forgive yourself for being injured. A lot of people with chronic pain have it due to injuries in the past and I think you do go through a blame type thing with it. And you have to learn to be nice, and ok with it.
While Helen is not pain free and may never be able to return to the world of work, she says she is “learning to sit with that” and describes her pain as now being an “uneasy bedfellow”.
Yet the progress she has made is evident. She said:
My daughter said, ‘Mum I can tell the difference in you, you’re far more ‘with-it’, you’re not falling asleep in phone conversations, you’re not slurring your words.’
Now she has new strategies to help her live with her pain and enjoy life and best of all she can now look after her grand-daughter Maisy when needed. Importantly, she is finding real meaning and purpose in supporting others like her.
If I could give anyone any advice it would be this. Listen carefully and with an open mind. You may not be ready yet to hear the message but let it sit with you. Read the research and if you don’t like research read the abstracts of as many studies as you can. It took me almost two years to be in the right place. But you learn to sit with it. It is now part of me but so are many other experiences. I wish anyone thinking about flipping their pain, good luck. You are not alone. You can do this.
Professor Cormac Ryan said:
Helen’s story really shows us that there is so much more to pain management than surgeries and painkillers. They are often not the answer. Understanding your own pain and what works for you is so important and it is an individual and one-off process for every single person who suffers with persistent pain.
It is so valuable to discover ways to manage and come to terms with your pain as Helen found. Now life has opened up for her and she can do things that simply weren’t possible before. I hope her story inspires others to look into the latest understanding of pain and find new skills and strategies that work for them.
More than a third of people in the UK have chronic pain – a pain that persists for longer than 12 weeks despite medication or treatment.
Sarah Wilson, Connect Health’s Consultant Physiotherapist and Clinical Lead, Lincolnshire Community Pain Management Service said:
Helen’s story demonstrates the wide range of inspiring changes she has made, supported by others including Flippin’ Pain, Connect Health and her family. I really admire Helen’s courage and dedication.
Making such changes can be hard and feel risky – worries about pain increasing as you move more, or when you reduce medication, are very common. As professionals, we can walk alongside people with pain but they’re the ones who make the brave moves. It’s fantastic to hear how Helen is progressing, enjoying the hobbies she loves and spending time with the people she cares about. We wish her all the best.