When the hurt keeps coming back: Students talk chronic pain conditions

October 17, 2017

Whether a muscle sprain, burn, surface cut or sinus headache, everyone experiences pain from time to time.

Pain is the brain receiving signals from nerves, signaling something is wrong in the body. It is meant to help the body, ensuring proper measures are taken in the event of injury.


And the thing about this kind of pain is that it is usually short-lived.


But there is a portion of the population that experiences pain frequently and for long periods of time. This is called chronic pain.


"Pain becomes chronic when it is recurring and affects [a student's] functioning," said Melissa Eha, Palm Beach Atlantic University Nurse Practitioner.


According to Eha, chronic pain is multifaceted and has various causes. She said it can often be caused by stress and lifestyle choices, things that can be controlled. But there are times when there is a bigger issue at hand.


"Pain [in the college years] is easy to dismiss because students are still young and new to adulthood. And it varies for everyone because of pain tolerance and coping mechanisms."


She said pain can be attributed to lack of sleep and exercise, diet and other factors. And the stereotypical college student is one who forgoes sleep for academic and social reasons, instead surviving off of caffeine and junk food.


The issue with stress, Eha said, is that the body cannot differentiate between good and bad stress.


According to Eha, for the percentage of people who struggle with chronic pain, diseases do not discriminate against age and gender.


Senior film major MaryBeth Kasselman suffers from chronic migraines. She was diagnosed in 2011 after she began passing out and developing fevers while experiencing headaches. A military kid, Kasselman said it took time for her to work through the health care system, receiving the right referrals for tests and specialists.



After about a year, she saw a neurologist.


"They tried telling me what caused the migraines. They were saying the only cause of them was certain foods. I stopped eating those foods and still got migraines. They asked about my stress level and whether I was in a relationship," Kasselman said.


By her junior year she had figured out how to manage.


"I have to prioritize my time and assignments. I became a huge list-maker with to do lists, post it notes and color coding. [With chronic pain] you have to plan," Kasselman said.


She was unaware of the university's disability program in the Student Success Center until her junior year, and at that point felt her pain was not as severe as that of others. Kasselman said now she is not in desperate need of it.


She encourages others to utilize that resource early on in their college career to help them transition and learn to manage their academic responsibilities.


Kasselman said her two biggest takeaways from her struggle with chronic pain were letting it define her and allowing it to affect her relationship with God.


"You are a person with dreams and goals. Don't let your pain [keep you] from becoming who you are made to be. And read about who Jesus is, and keep that at the forefront of your mind," she said.


According to the 2011 study by Cedarville University, “Coping Constructs Related to College Students with Chronic Pain,” few studies have been done regarding chronic pain in young adults.


Students "are living within the context of a culture that demands a high level of physical, mental, and psychological functioning for success," the study concluded.


Junior elementary education major Anna Felten is also no stranger to pain. In fact, she has experienced it for as long as she can remember.


Felten has a genetic disorder called multiple epiphyseal dysplasia (MED).


According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), it is a condition that affects the development of bone and cartilage in the arms and legs.


She underwent four major surgeries between the age of 11 and 20. Her first surgery straightened out her left femur, called a femur tether, which took pressure off her left knee. The second surgery at age 12 was a tibia tether on her right leg.


Age 16 was a total left hip replacement. The fourth surgery at age 20 was a total right hip replacement.



Her right hip replacement surgery, Felten said, was imminent. Although the Student Success Center and campus safety worked together to help her physically get to classes, it was difficult. Her pain was high, she was not sleeping and while her grades were fine, she had to push harder to do well.


And while the surgery was successful and in turn increased her mobility, Felten said pain is a constant in her life.


"Pain [for most people] is a temporary problem with a solution," Felten said. "But chronic pain doesn't have a solution."


The goal is not to totally rid her body of pain, but rather lessen or dull it. After all, she said, she has dealt with pain for 21 years, and does not know a life without it.


For Felten, her morning routine is incredibly important to manage her condition. She has a combination of medications that her body responds well to, and that helps her with daily life.


Like Kasselman, Felten's diagnosis took time. Her parents began noticing symptoms when she was six months old. They took her to doctors in Ohio, Indiana and Georgia. Most doctors dismissed her case and thought her parents fabricated her pain. Felten was diagnosed at age 10 after seeing a pediatric orthopedic doctor who had heard of her condition before.


The frequency of MED is at least one in 10,000, according to the NIH. Because it is rare, Felten said she had trouble finding doctors who understood her condition and were willing to treat her.


An out-of-state student, she now has physicians who oversee her medical needs while she lives in Florida.

"If you aren't taking care of your physical and mental health, you won't be able to take care of what you need to," Felten said.


She participates in a support group and encourages others to do the same. This helps her learn pain management strategies, enables her to learn of other people with MED and provides her with a platform to vent or share her own story.


"MED has shaped who I have become. It has been my ministry to connect with people around the world with the same thing. I want to use what God has given me for his glory," Felten said.


Part of Kasselman and Felten's medical journeys has been fighting for doctors to listen to their concerns and provide diagnoses.


"I wish doctors wouldn't jump to conclusions so fast and actually hear me. Doctors are so quick to walk in an exam room and give a diagnosis. It's frustrating to only get like five minutes of time," Kasselman said.


For Felten, her parents experienced this, and so did she when she became old enough to take on her medical needs.


She learned to advocate for her needs and communicate to be fully understood. And for Felten, that meant trying doctors until she felt confident in the care she received.


The Cedarville University study pointed to various coping strategies such as developing distraction techniques, ignoring pain and minimizing pain's effect either through helping others or through comparing oneself to another's circumstances.


Eha said the Health and Wellness office offers free consultations, resources and education to help students navigate and cope with their pain experiences, and offer outside resources and referrals to those who need it.


She said there are new medications and therapies being developed that have made an impact on levels of pain in addition to over-the-counter remedies, but there are also non-medical resources such as counseling that could positively impact one's experience with pain. Counseling can help one develop effective coping strategies and give them strategies to make day to day life easier.


"I'm not going to diminish someone's pain and say it's anxiety or depression, but stress worsens it," Eha said. "It's better that pain is dealt with now instead of later on in life."




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