Pain was my lifelong companion, a bully that took over.
A natural health alternative saved my life.
At 10 I woke up every night screaming. Growing pains.
At 11 I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curved and twisted spine.
At 12 I wore a back brace everyday. Spasms and tingling sensations became normal.
By 13 my ribs twisted even more, starting to affect my heart and left lung.
After my first operation, a surgery installing a metal rod to straighten my spine, I wore a torso cast and then a brace for months; faint beginnings of chronic pain.
By 14 the metal in my spine unhooked. The scoliosis was progressing.
At 15 I searched for a surgeon to operate; to remove and reinstall a new spinal rod.
At 16 I had my second operation. I was paralyzed, mid-chest down.
I woke up a full day after the surgery. I couldn’t move my legs at all for two weeks. My right leg moved first, then my left. It was months before I could stand or walk.
At first, I felt no pain. I stopped using morphine and other prescriptions almost immediately. They made it difficult to think and concentrate. They did nothing for my irreparable body—It was simply and entirely numb.
I knew pain from a young age: lightening-like back spasms, strain-induced backaches, and tingling sensations due to my back brace. I knew nothing. Six months after discharge from Bloorview Macmillan Children’s Centre, intense pain became my daily companion.
The complications of re-learning how to walk included a unique combination of neuropathic, somatic and visceral pain: phantom, moving itches, constant tingling, repeated swelling at the top of the spine, muscle spasticity, muscle weakness, joint pain, bladder issues, insomnia… I could not count the hundreds of different types of pain throughout my body.
Chronic pain, for life
At sixteen I was diagnosed with chronic pain, known as Failed Back Syndrome. With age, my bones would degenerate, and time would make the pain worse. Entirely unprepared for constant pain, especially along with other normal hormonal teenage turmoil, I called it a life, took 25 Advil and nearly destroyed my liver.
The onset of chronic pain is never easy to manage, and effects every individually differently. According to the Canadian Pain Society, one in 5 Canadians, or six million people, live with chronic pain.
- Chronic pain patients suffer the worst quality of life as compared with other chronic diseases, such as chronic lung or heart disease.
– (Choiniere, Dion et al. 2010)
- People in pain are twice as likely to have major depression, and twice as likely to commit suicide due to no relief for their pain.
– (Tang and Crane, 2006)
- Specifically in Ontario, a study on the rise of opioid related deaths showed that most patients had seen their physician in the 10 days prior with a mental health or pain related diagnosis. A quarter of these pain medication related deaths were determined as suicide.
– (Dhalla, Mamdani et 2009)
- Untreated pain can compromise immune system function, promote tumour growth and compromise healing.
– (Liebeskind, 1991)
- Doctors are trained five times less in pain management than veterinarians are.
– (Watson, McGillion et al. 2009)
- Conventional medicine can only offer about a 30% reduction in chronic pain levels and the side effects can be unbearable.
– (Calgary Pain Clinic, 2009)
- Chronic pain gets less than 1% of total funding from Canadian Health Institutes of Heath Research and only 0.25% of research on pain related studies.
– (Lynch, Schopflocher et al. 2009)
- In Canada, the estimated economical cost of chronic pain in adults, including expenses and lost productivity, is between 56-60 billion annually.
– (Relieving Pain in America, 2011)
A prescription for pain
Prescription pills, such as Tramadol and Tylenol 3 would cause acid-reflux and make me dizzy and unresponsive. I supplemented the various prescribed medications with other natural health alternatives, including acupuncture, Reiki, tai chi and yoga, along with continued physiotherapy. Nothing was so effective as to alleviate my various kinds of pain while allowing me to remain alert and productive. I needed an alternative way to cope.
As a teenager, I smoked marijuana alongside my first beer as a recreational experiment. Years later while in the rehabilitation hospital, a friend and I dragged my wheelchair outside. We smoked a joint, and for a minute, I thought if I tried I could get up and walk.
Soon after, I started walking, and not long after that, back into the real world. I didn’t think about it again until I overdosed on Advil six months later.
I found that pharmaceuticals did not help, but even exacerbated both my mental and physical issues. Having a constant source of pain is life changing, but not being able to be productive or be social was worse. Doctors are very reluctant to explore natural health alternatives with their patients, and are often quick to prescribe a pain medication. According to the Canadian Pain Society, treatment for chronic pain should always be individualized according to “efficacy, side-effect profile and drug accessibility.” This in itself is difficult, because we know very little about pain and how it works in the brain and body as it is.
My natural, alternative solution
After realizing the minimal benefit of my prescribed medication, cannabis became my catalyst for pain management. There is a limited understanding, for both patients and their doctors, of how exactly pain works in the brain and body; it is experienced differently in various situations and is influenced by many factors—including the choice of medication. Since we know so little about pain, individualized care and management must be found by looking outside of the conventional medical cabinet.
Cannabis, better known as marijuana, has hundreds of compounds, 60 of which have cannabinoid properties. Mary-Ann Fitzcharles, MD, associate professor of medicine in the rheumatology and pain management unit at McGill University says, “Every plant contains different concentrations, so [using marijuana] is not the same as taking a carefully calibrated medication.” Although Health Canada has implemented the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), “dried marijuana is not an approved drug or medicine in Canada.” The regulations are supposed to assure reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana when authorized by a physician. Unfortunately, the disapproval of the health regulatory board makes prescribing cannabis a relatively risky and stigmatized action for doctors. Countless patients—myself included—continue to ingest sub-par, self-dosed medication because physicians cannot cope with their patient’s demands, fear unconventional methods, have little access to research and have little time to find credible studies on dosage, tolerance and conditions cannabis may help.
The inaccessibility of natural alternatives
The current regulations may satisfy the Canadian government, but in terms of education for doctors and access for patients, they continue to be lacking. Legalization or decriminalization is not a part of this conversation: in either scenario, patients would still need access to quality cannabis for medicinal, not recreational, purposes. Cannabis is a versatile plant and extremely safe medication, yet pharmaceutical companies have yet to make it an accessible choice for Canadians. Why?
The path to health has not been paved for me, and the current laws and stigmas are hindering my progress. I have confidence in Canada’s medicinal system, but I believe natural health alternatives have been overlooked. There are many intersecting parts to achieving health; medicine, conventional or otherwise, is only a small piece of the puzzle. I know we can find common ground between conventional medicine and alternative therapies. If you’re on a similar path, we can walk together. Join me.
My plan? Investigate.
Nothing is black and white. We can find an equilibrium between conventional medication and natural healing. There is a way to achieve open communication between patients and their physicians. We can master individualized effective care to the betterment of our society—it starts with me to you, one patient to another.
Everybody has their own hurdles on their path to achieving health.
What’s your story?