health

The moment Andrea Carlaw realised she was living a life in constant pain.

Two years ago, Andrea Carlaw noticed something strange.

If she stood up for more than a minute or two, she would feel extremely light-headed. Almost as though she was going to fall over.

Then only 24 years old, Andrea began experiencing stabbing pains in her chest and it hurt to breathe. Next, it was tingling in her hands, her face, and her calves. Eventually, she couldn’t see properly.

Speaking to Mamamia, Andrea says her pain appeared “out of the blue”. From that day onward, her pain has always been at least a two out of 10, but will spontaneously progress to an eight or nine.

Over the last two years, Andrea has visited seven GPs and multiple specialists.

At first, her family GP assumed it was bad posture. But as the pain worsened, it became evident that the cause was far more complex.

On three occasions, the pain has become so unbearable she has had to call an ambulance. Andrea says that after the third time she decided it was “the last time that I will ever, if I can avoid it, call emergency.”

Andrea Carlaw was just 24 when she began to experience chronic pain. Image supplied. 

The paramedic who arrived seemed impatient and rather unconvinced that Andrea was physically unwell. He ran a series of tests at her home, informing her that everything was normal and "it doesn't look like there's anything wrong with you." He felt that her symptoms aligned with anxiety and did not require medical assistance.

She says the feeling of not being believed was "...so awful. I cried for the entire afternoon. And then I really, really struggled to go to a new GP or talk to anyone. At the same point you think, am I making it up? I don't want to be wasting people's time. You doubt yourself."

Despite her best efforts, Andrea still does not have a diagnosis. Her doctors feel they have exhausted all the possible avenues, and she was recently told, "You're better off just to stop looking and just to accept this is you."

Andrea still does not have a diagnosis. Image supplied. 

Andrea says that the chronic pain has taken a huge toll on her wellbeing, as the hope of it going away is becoming "increasingly slim". She adds that "because there's no diagnosis, there's no cure. No one fully understands it."

When I asked about the state of her mental health, Andrea responded;

"The pain I can sort of deal with now. It's there and I hate it and it makes me really angry but that's sort of it. It's the fact that...I didn't do anything wrong. And I'm 26 and I don't want to have kids anytime soon because I can't keep myself functioning, so why would I then bring another person into that? I've been single for three years now, I don't get to go out and meet those people. I don't want to bring other people into my little miserable bubble."

Chronic pain explained by the GP Access and The Hunter Integrated Pain Service. Post continues below.

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Video by NSW Government

Her life now looks incredibly different to what it did two years ago. Growing up as a "very sporty kind of person", having played netball for 20 years, Andrea has now had to stop because she is unable to make it through a single game.

Andrea works full time as a Solutions Consultant in IT. However, she often misses work because of the extreme discomfort. It also affects her mood and general wellbeing, causing her to feel angry and irritable.

She says that since the onset of pain "It's like everything is a trade-off. On weekends, I'm pretty much in bed all weekend. And that is how I keep my full time job." Before she does anything, whether that be a social activity or exercise, Andrea has to consider whether she has enough time - or painkillers - to adequately recover.

Andrea has become involved with a support group run by the Australian Pain Management Association, which she says has made her feel, for the first time, like she might be able to cope. She says that most pain courses and material is targeted at older people who are not part of the workforce. Meeting women in her support group who might be mums, or full time employees, has inspired her to be "tough".

Andrea used to enjoy an active social life. Image supplied. 

A good day for Andrea consists of a restful night's sleep. A particularly successful day is one without pain killers, where she can feel proud and reflect "I did that all myself."

I asked Andrea how she would describe her day-to-day experience to someone who has no history of chronic pain. She said it was as though "your body hates you". It is unlike a broken leg, where you get a cast and rest it, or diabetes, where you can watch your sugar.

That sort of pain, she says "you can deal with". But for individuals suffering chronic pain, "you're always in pain. At any given time. You will rarely sleep well and nobody gets it. You don't look sick so nobody gives a shit."

For sufferers like Andrea, our support is incredibly important. Pain is a complex neurological, physiological and emotional experience that researchers do not yet fully understand. Despite the reality that one in five Australians live with chronic pain, it remains one of the most under-funded of all major health conditions.

In a similar vein to mental illness, chronic pain is invisible. But that certainly doesn't make it any less real.

Support the #campaignforpain petition 'Why are we condemning our kids to a lifetime of pain?', here

Thank you to Andrea Carlaw and Painaustralia for their help with this story. To find out more about chronic pain, visit Pain Australia's website, here

If you are suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

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