Chronic pain, daily pain that lasts over three months, is a reality for many Americans. According to the CDC, “Chronic pain is the most common reason adults seek medical care and is associated with decreased quality of life, opioid dependence, and poor mental health.”
A 2019 National Health Institute Survey found 20.4% of adults had chronic pain and 7.4% of adults had chronic pain that frequently limited life or work activities.
Many students and staff of UCC are among those who work with continuous pain. From athletic injuries to auto-immune disorders, some UCC students put effort into finding a balance between managing chronic pain and having the energy and focus to excel in school.
Unfortunately for students and teachers, pain and the subsequent challenges do not stop assignments and tests from being due. As the old adage goes “the show must go on,” but the question is how?
How do students find a balance through reoccurring, sometimes debilitating pain?
Amanda Cerda, ASUCC president and psychology student, has asked herself this question many times.
After years enduring frequent injury, distracting pain and a back surgery in 2018, Cerda was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is a connective tissue disorder often characterized by hypermobility and frequent pain and injury. She also sees a movement disorder specialist and neurologist for her diagnosis of propriosonal myoclonus, a rare spinal disorder, and synringomyelia.
“I lived with intense pressure in my chest that felt like a heavy heart and simultaneously a knife in my back before I got my first surgery,” Cerda said over the phone. “I still have daily pain but not like it used to be.”
Cerda attributes her improved health to personal body awareness.
“You really have to be in tune with what is going on in the inside, in order to understand how to solve it and how to relieve the pain,” Cerda said.
Cerda regularly experiences extreme and exhausting pain from her continually moving joints yet still maintains a high grade point average while being actively involved with ASUCC and Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society. This is not easy for Cerda.
“I know I need to sleep; I need to take care of my body; I need to take care of responsibilities,” Cerda said. “But sometimes all I want to do is lie in my bed all day and do nothing.”
Cerda is one of many students who receive accommodations through UCC accessibility services. Accessibility services aids students with approved accommodations for their verified conditions ranging from chronic illness to pregnancy to neurological challenges and more.
“This is the first semester I had to actually use my accommodations,” Cerda said. “I always have my accommodations in place. But things are kind of catching up to me,” Cerda said as she laughed lightly to herself.
Even the most experienced with chronic conditions can find themselves doing more than their body and brain can handle; this can lead to illness, exhaustion and “fog brain.” Accommodations such as flexible deadlines are put in place to enable students to succeed through issues that may sometimes hinder their ability to attend class or meet a due date.
Chronic pain is especially difficult for students who don’t know why they are hurting. Sometimes pain is a result of injury, but some students have to do their own detective work to find the root.
“Knowing your specific diagnosis is valuable and allows you and your healthcare provider to write a treatment plan that works for you,” said Jodi Klier-Butler, a nursing professor who teaches a course on chronic illness at UCC.
For Cerda the diagnosis of her ailments was hard, but ultimately liberating. She offers advice for other students.
“We should acknowledge that medical industry is not all bad. I think we should try all the inner work first, but if there is something a doctor can help with, go see a doctor,” Cerda said.
Klier-Butler acknowledges pain can be useful. “Pain is there for a reason. It is your body telling you something isn’t right.”
Melissa Wilkins, a nursing student with a recent diagnosis of scoliosis, actively strives to maintain health to reduce the strain of reoccurring back pain while going to school full time.
“I noticed for me, sitting for too long aggravates my back pain,” Wilkins said over the phone. “So I try to stay aware and move as much as possible.”
Wilkins also notices that exercise, especially muscle strengthening, improves her pain levels. “Going to the gym has helped me tremendously,” Wilkins said.
A 2020 study on chronic pain amongst university students in Norway found a correlation between targeted exercise and reduction in reoccurring pain.
Although sometimes necessary, prescribed opioids or even over-the-counter drugs have potential dangers.
“There are many dangers in overusing any drug. If overused, ibuprofen can have negative effects on the GI system, the renal system and the liver to name just a few,” Klier-Butler said.
Cerda attributes her success in balancing her pain with her school responsibilities to active awareness.
“I do my best to listen to my body,” Cerda said. “You really have to be in tune with what is going on in the inside in order to know how to fix the problem,” said Cerda.
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