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Wednesday, 17 July 2013 04:38

Finding hope when it hurts

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Sr Rebecca met co-authors, pain specialist Philip Siddal and  psychologist Robin Murray (pictured right), at the Royal North Shore Pain Institute in Sydney. The idea of writing a book together stemmed from their desire to disseminate information on managing persisting or chronic pain. “We realised that people who can’t get to pain centres in the major cities need to access the information and treatments that we were doing,” said Sr Rebecca.

Sr Rebecca is currently President of the Bethany Health Care Centre in Strathfield and Senior Physiotherapist at the Pain Management Service at Greenwich Hospital in Sydney. Together with her co-authors, they run a successful pain management program at the hospital based on the principles in the book. 

Sr Rebecca, who joined the Mercy Sisters twenty years ago, also understands pain firsthand. For four years, she was part of the Australian swimming team in the early 1980s and was ranked ninth in the world in 1984. While furiously training to qualify for the 800-metre freestyle event for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a torn tendon in her shoulder forced her out during the elite trials. At 15 years old, Sr Rebecca profoundly understood the impact of physical pain and the anguish of disappointment.

Her own experience gives her exceptional insight into the workings of pain – a hidden epidemic that affects one in five people (and one in three people aged over 65) at great social and economic cost. 

“The last 10 years of research have indicated that medications alone aren’t the only answer to treat chronic pain," said Sr Rebecca. "It is alarming that recent research suggests strong pain-killer usage and addiction has increased dramatically yet at the same time the incidence of chronic pain is increasing."

"The way we treat chronic pain doesn’t seem to be working – we need new strategies and treatments.“ 

The book teaches the skills for getting back that control and gaining the upper hand in the treatment of pain. It offers a program of stretching, regular exercise and the use of strategies based on cognitive behaviour therapy and positive psychology to reduce pain. In particular, Sr Rebecca cites the effectiveness of meditation in reducing pain. “There is a lot of evidence in the last 10 years that meditation acts like an anti-inflammatory for the mind,” she said.

“Meditation quiets the mind because the brain is a very powerful tool to help us manage that pain and actually reduce it.”

Pain physiology was once thought to be linear, comprising a simple stimulus-response process which has since been contradicted by research. “We now know that there is a complex series of gates, which can actually turn up the volume or decrease the volume of pain,” Sr Rebecca explained. “In the spinal cord as well as in the brain, there are gates that actually increase or decrease the volume of pain messages.”  

This physiological understanding of pain needs to be communicated well to the ordinary person. “In the book and in our practice, we talk a lot about what’s going on in your body and how you can actually treat the pain yourself.” 

The book also offers an alternative to the option that medication is the only answer. “In our community, we try to deaden the pain through alcohol, drugs and strong medication, whatever pain that is,” said Sr Rebecca. “Of course, medication has its place but the problem with strong pain killers is that it eases the pain but over time, your pain receptors get tolerant of the dosage so you need a higher dose to get the desired effect." 

“I’d rather give control back to the person rather than let a pill control the person.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the book equally proves to be a valuable resource for people who don’t have the money to access medication. 

“We had a rehab specialist come over from Vietnam to have a look at our program,” said Sr Rebecca. “She was very keen to translate the book in Vietnamese because people in the Hanoi hospital where she was working couldn’t afford pain medication, so they need to be taught other ways to reduce their pain.”

“It made me realise the importance of the contents of the book,” she said. “It’s a holistic, resourceful and research based approach.”

By Giselle Lapitan

"The Pain Book" can be bought at the website thepainbook.com and good bookstores and will be launched in Sydney on Thursday, 1st of August 2013 6:30-8:00 pm at Berkelouw Paddington, 19 Oxford St.