Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain

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Helichrysum, Immortal & Everlasting

Well, back to the old game of “we are going to poke and prod you for a bit” with the doctors. Looks like my CRPS has spread to another part of me, since its a diagnosis of exclusions we have to rule out everything before we are 100% sure its my CRPS taking over more ground. But, it will never take me down! Especially since it is bluebonnet season here in Texas, one of my favorite times of year.

My energetic recovery helper sitting among some lovely bluebonnets.

My energetic recovery helper sitting next to some lovely bluebonnets.

Everyone should grow herbs, not only is it satisfying to grow and harvest something you planted as a seed, but it is handy for cooking and medicinal uses. If you have only the space for a balcony or window garden, or just don’t have time for that gardening thing, there are a few plants you should absolutely should still make the effort to grow. Aloe, mint, rosemary, basil and helichrysum. They are all multipurpose useful plants that are fairly hardy (that means hard to kill them) and easy to grow…and grow they will, like mad. The one you probably didn’t recognize was helichrysum this fantastic and sadly not as famous as it should be little herb is native to the Mediterranean, and Africa. But because it was so useful, it spread quickly to the rest of the world and now it is used worldwide for skin, pain and nerve conditions.


Happy little flowers of sunshine!

The name we use for it now comes from Greek, helios or Sun, from the Titan of myth, Helios, that drove the shining golden chariot of the sun, and chrysos for gold, or golden, which refers to the bright sunny flowers that are a trademark of this plant. This sunny little plant, which is a relative of the daisy, got it’s other common names of Immortelle and Everlasting from the flower’s retention of their bright yellow color when dried, and this might be why the dried flowers were used as offerings by the Greeks. The Romans used it to treat word cuts, and was also used traditionally in the Mediterranean to treat colds and chest ailments. Used as a strewing herb in the Middle Ages, it was also used in folk healing for skin conditions and healing scars. In Africa it has a traditional use of treating rheumatism, since it is a wonderful anti-inflammatory, and was known as Geelsewejaartjie which translates roughly to “bright yellow flowers that last seven years in the house.” It is also said it is one of the herbs used by Moses to help protect the Israelites from the plagues in the Old Testament.

Later on in Italy its curry-like flavor made it a widely used culinary addition, it does have a curry like smell, but the taste is more bitter like sage or wormwood. Different parts of the plants such as the young shoots and leaves are stewed with meat or vegetables to impart their flavor. It also is a fairly powerful cat repellent, but since it is poisonous to felines (and will take over any where it is planted) it should be planted with caution, and mindfulness of where kitties tend to venture.

Before we get into how you can use helichrysum, a note on the different species. There are a lot of different species of helichrysum, like hundreds of them, and generally they all tend to have the same properties. There are a few species you shouldn’t, but if you purchase this from a reputable herb dealer/company that states on the labeling that it is safe for ingestion, it should be fine to consume teas or other things made from these herbs or flowers. If it does not explicitly state it is safe for internal use, I would see if the dealer can clear that up, or research the full Latin name (genus and species, and sub-species where necessary) of the helichrysum to make sure it is safe to ingest. If you get to that point, be smart and also consult an herbalist to make sure you aren’t endangering yourself.

This is a plant you can class with lavender and chamomile, generally gentle on the skin, and good for the skin, as well as anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-spasmodic properties. It also rivals arnica for its treatment of bruises, and is a great antiseptic. Chemically it contains a lot of neat stuff, one of the reasons it is so good to have around all the time. There are a few we have discussed before, and some that are new. Since it is a lot of information I have listed them in groups, to make it easy:

Pain & Swelling (or Sport Injury) Compress

  • 4 tablespoons dried Helichrysum flowers
  • 16 oz Boiling water
  • Bowl and towel

Steep for 10 minutes, and allow to cool until very warm, but not hot. Soak towel in the tincture and wring out excess liquid. Place on painful or swollen area to reduce swelling and alleviate pain. You can also throw in a few tablespoons of chamomile, rue, or lavender to help with the swelling and pain. This is a great remedy for nerve pain and the warmth is very soothing.

ProTip: This is also a great way to treat sunburns or wind chapped skin.

Helichrysum Tea

  • 1-2 teaspoons dried Helichrysum flowers
  • 8 oz  Boiling water

Steep for about 4-5 minutes in a covered tea cup, or if you double this you can brew it in a teapot. Remember to purchase the dried flowers from a reputable dealer that can guarantee they are from a species that is known to be safe to ingest, if you are going to grow and dry your own do your research and make sure you are buying the right species when you purchase seeds. This can also help reduce stress, and is great with Tulsi, lemon balm or lavender.

Much easier to acquire is the oil, which is made from the flowers. Make sure you check the species used to make the oils before you purchase it, I suggest dealers like Native American Nutritionals, YoungLiving, and Mountain Rose Herbs, since they tend to lead the pack with quality. And cover a range of prices, this is a pretty expensive oil (like lemon balm) but is totally worth the investment. (If the oils are too expensive, definitely invest in some seeds to grow and dry your own or purchase them dried from a reputable local/online herb dealer.)

Helichrysum Massage Oil

  • 1 oz Carrier oil
  • 10-20 drops Helichrysum essential oil

Mix and store in a light proof container, massage into painful area for relief. This is a great way to treat pain of joints and muscles, as well as inflammation of the skin, muscles and joints. You can also rub this on your skin all over if you use a carrier oil your skin likes (something like olive, coconut, jojoba, or sweet almond), it helps to even tone and generally help skin look fantastic. If you have scars (from surgeries or otherwise), or stretch marks you can massage this into them to help reduce the redness and visibility of scars.

Helichrysum Quick Salve

  • 2 oz Coconut oil
  • 10-20 drops Helichrysum essential oil

Using a whisk attachment, whip coconut oil until soft and creamy. Once it looks light and creamy, start dropping in your essential oils one drop at a time while continuing to whisk. Store in an airtight jar, or clean re-usable container.

Helichrysum Salve

  • 1/3 c Oil (Vegetable based, not canola oil)
  • 1/3 oz Bees Wax, granulated or grated
  • 5-10 drops Helichrysum oil

Heat oil in double boiler, slowly add in beeswax and stir constantly until fully melted and combined. Remove from heat and add drop by drop essential oils while continuing to mix. Pour into containers and allow to cool, store sealed. Makes a great small salve to pop into a purse, pocket or carry on for on the go pain application. Check out the Eucalyptus post if you want more salve details and container suggestions.

Both of these salves are great to rub into sore joints, or painful areas just like the massage oil especially the quick salve since it works in place of oil for massages. While the beeswax salve is more anytime and user friendly application,  keep a jar of these in your purse or gym bag to treat bumps, bruises, sprains and twists that happen unexpectedly, or as your go to pain remedy when you are on the move. It is also good for wounds helping by to heal them, as well as reduce the likelihood of scars. If you have a scar already this is great to massage in to reduce its redness, and is a little less messy than using the oil. Also, both of these treat burns extremely well, you can combine it with aloe, lavender or chamomile for burns and sunburns.

ProTip: Like lavender, chamomile, copaiba, and frankincense its good for skin to keep it lovely, treat eczema and psoriasis, as well as other skin fungal infections. For soaps and lotions it blends well with bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, lavender and citrus scents.

Finally, I always love a food that is also medicine, since nothing is better than food that makes you feel good inside and out. The fresh young leaves and shoots are great used fresh as an addition to salads, placed in fish for steaming (remember to remove before serving), a great addition to a beef marinade. You can bruise the young leaves and add them to onions that you are caramelizing to use for burger, taco, curry or any sort of onion dish. Also, chopped leaves added to cream cheese and mixed well spread on good bread is a fantastic spread, and can even be used for sandwiches, smoked or grilled salmon goes great with this too.

This is a plant that is considered “mostly harmless” that doesn’t mean to carelessly ingest it or to treat it without respect. Even water is poisonous if you have too much. Always make sure you know which species, or sub-species, you are purchasing before even considering any sort of internal use. Generally it is safe for external use, again in reasonable quantities, just use common sense! Remember to do your research and to check for interactions, like on WebMD (or other sites if you have a different species than the one listed on WebMD), and if you are in doubt at all ask a professional!


Copaiba, the Lesser Known Balsam

Most people know of frankincense and myrrh, both are famous resins that are usually well known. But not many know of copaiba, sometimes known as copal. Made from trees of the Copaifera genus, this is a previously common tree in the Americas but illegal harvesting and logging has put many of these trees at risk of extinction. Try to only purchase any copaiba from a reputable dealer, that is only using sustainable sourcing for their products. There is not just one sort of copaiba tree that produces this useful resin but all in the genus, and they are all fairly similar looking. The first documented that we know of is the Copiafera officinalis, but the other species also produce the resins that are so useful. It does produce fruits and has lovely flowers but the sap is the most important part, which it is harvested like maple syrup, then dried and used in its raw dried form or processed into oils.

The delicate little flowers remind me a lot of bottle brush trees.

Mainly it’s historical usage was for medicinal reasons, but it has more uses than just as medicine too, it is used in biodiesel production and as an oil for painting and ceramics. The oil made from the resin is also used to help restore old artwork, since it ads shine to older dried out paintings. In herbal medicine it has been known for generations among the tribes of the Amazon basin as a treatment for itchy bug bites, as an aid to healing wounds that reduces scarring, and to staunch blood flow. It is currently widely used in Brazil and other parts of South America, and is sometimes known as balsam of copaiba. In Peru it was used to reduce inflammation and for treating possible bacterial infections. Further up in the Americas, the Mayans used it as an aid in vision ceremonies, generally as incense, and to ritually cleanse the body, usually with the smoke. It is still used in some Mexican churches for its ritual purification properties. There is less documented usage of this in the eras prior to the “discovery” of South America, since most of the knowledge was passed down through oral traditions. Once Europeans arrive, documentation begins. There could be a reference as early as 1534 when Petrus, Martyr of Anghiera reported to Pope Leo X that he found a resiniferous tree that was not a pine used by the natives of the New World, which they called copei. The next mention of copaiba is by a Portuguese monk, possibly the monk Manoel Tristaon, who wrote about it in 1625. He mentions that –

“Cupayba. For wounds. Cuypaba is a fig tree, commonly very high, straite and big; it hath much oile, within; for to get it they cut the tree in the middest, where it hath the vent, and there it hath this oil in so great abundance that some of them doe yield a quarterne of oile and more; it is very clear of the color of oile; it is much set by for wounds, and taketh away all the skarre. It serveth also for lights and burne well; the beasts knowing the vertue thereof doe come and rubbe themselves thereat. There are great store, the wood is good for nothing.”

Copaiba was brought back from the New World by the Jesuits, and it was known for a while as Jesuit’s balsam because of this. Doctors in the US used this a disinfectant, diuretic and a natural laxative up until about 1910, but then it fell out of popularity as a treatment, but was continued to be used in cosmetics and soap making, and is still allowed by the FDA in small amounts in food as a flavoring component. Copaiba is used frequently in most places it is used to treat respiratory inflammation and infection, skin issues (like psoriasis), and to help in wound care so that they heal without, or with minimal, scarring.

But what makes this resin so awesome? Well it is actually a very well known chemical that is called Caryophyllene. This is a chemical that occurs naturally in many plants, like in cloves, rosemary and hops, it gives black pepper it’s spiciness and it is a great anti-inflammatory. Even though you can get caryophyllene in other plants, copaiba is the highest natural concentration of this chemical. Copaiba also contains pinene, that is great for respiratory issues since it is an expectorant, as well as other sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, and terpenic acids. These are all make up the chemicals that make this resin a great antibacterial and anti-fungal, if taken internally it can be a diuretic as well. There is a long tradition of taking small amounts of the oil in Brazil, somewhere between 5-15 drops generally is prescribed. I think it is too easy to over dose on this depending on the strength of the copaiba oil acquired, and overdosing can produce nausea and other unpleasant side effects like rashes.

The resin can be bought whole and used as incense, or it can be crushed and added to salve recipes. I find it is easiest to use it as an oil since it takes less steps to use it. This is an oil that can irritate the skin a bit, like peppermint or cloves, I would suggest doing a test patch on your skin to see if any reactions occur.

This is a great massage oil for stiff and inflamed muscles, and can be mixed into just a carrier oil, or you can make a balm yourself with the oils.

Copaiba Massage Oil

  • 1 oz Carrier oil
  • 15-30 drops Copaiba oil

Mix well and store in dark, light proof container. Massage into sore muscles or painful areas. If you want to increase some of its soothing powers clary sage, cinnamon, clove, frankincense. For perfuming or soap making it goes well with jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang or vanilla since these are all scents that can relax and aid with reducing stress.

Since it is so relaxing a smell, as well as reducing inflammation, this is a great bath soak addition.

Copaiba Epsom Salt Soak

  • 5 cups Epsom Salts
  • 10-15 drops Copaiba
  • 10 drops Sweet Orange (Bergamot would work too)
  • 10-15 drops Ylang-ylang

Mix well, and store in airtight container, use about a cup in a warm bath and soak for up to 20 minutes. Relaxing glass of wine and music is optional! This is a great way to unwind after a long stressful day or week, or to ease muscles that are in pain or have been overworked.

I would not suggest substituting the dried resin, these should be done with oils and you will have better results. It is also a lot easier. You can purchase pure copaiba resin that has not been processed, again make sure it is from a sustainable source. If you want to use it as incense you can place some of the resin on a burning coal so that its aroma can fill a room. If you would like to use the resin in a preparation, I would suggest grinding it as fine as possible, preferably in a mortar and pestle since electric grinders will introduce heat and damage the oils.

Copaiba Salve

  • 1/2 oz Beeswax
  • 2 oz Copaiba resin, ground as fine as possible
  • 4 oz Oil (Olive, Jojoba, Coconut, etc)

Add the beeswax and the copaiba to a pot on a stove, keep an eye on this as it melts on low heat stirring to incorporate the resin and the wax. Be careful not to burn the mixture, it just needs to melt smoking is a bad sign. Once it is melted drizzle in your oil while stirring, you want this to combine completely and evenly. Pour into containers while still warm and allow to cool. Once this has cooled it will thicken and be a great salve to use for bug bites as well as burns, cuts, and abrasions to help with healing without a scar, or to help a scar heal further and fade faster. It can also be used as a topical anti-inflammatory for sore muscles. If you don’t want to use the resin, you can use 20 drops of copaiba oil to make this as well.

ProTip: In salve making you should keep a dedicated salve pot and it should not be your favorite one, or your favorite spoon. Recently I discovered Korean-style chopsticks work best for salve making since they are metal and flat.

Remember do your research and educate yourself before using anything, make sure there won’t be interactions by checking places like WebMD. Though there are quite a few sites that recommend taking this oil internally I would not suggest doing so without making sure with your doctor if that is safe, always remember if you are in doubt about anything you are taking in the slightest, ask a professional!

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The Broken Column

Art can be something you do to express yourself, or something you view to move your soul. Art has always been a passion of mine, I love viewing art, and I used to draw much more to help deal with sadness, especially during my years in high school and college. Recently, I have been drawn to looking at a painting by a personal heroine of mine, the Broken Column by Frida Kahlo.

Says so much doesn’t it?

When I was in high school, I had the extreme luck of having a Spanish teacher that was full of passion about a lot of things, and a fantastic outlook on life. Her intense love of art, music, and the general beauty in things was so strong, that you could not help catching the bug too. She probably doesn’t know what a huge influence to my life she was, and probably will continue to be because of her introducing me to Frida. The way she spoke about Frida, hearing her sad life story, and then seeing her art moved me deeply. Frida has been one of my favorite artists ever since.

Back then I didn’t care as much for her “weirder” stuff like the Broken Column. I liked the self-portraits, they were safe and comfortable, didn’t make you feel too much, unless they made you feel good. I was a teenager much more concerned with other things to get too deep about art expressing such deep sorrow and pain.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Frida’s self portraits I always found very serene looking, and her depiction of flora and fauna surrounding her always seemed so beautiful. She paints her self critically, but also is proud of her heritage and loves to show that through her art. As a Texan you can sort of connect culturally with this deeply Mexican artist that struggled with her mixed roots.

Her more tortured art, I understand far better now. When you look at the Broken Column, you see the cracked spine represented by the broken and seeming unstable column, that seems to be close to the collapsing point. I feel this is exactly the image that describes the best how it feels to have a serious back injury, like your main support is now shaken and the rest of the body is now a shell and a shadow hung around the faulty core. The landscape is barren, she is alone in the desert. Pain is isolating, you spend so much time alone.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

The surgical brace, her physical jail, the thing that holds this now injured body together. The nails, only someone with neurological pain can understand this, the sharp stabs that seem able to appear all over the body. The pain in her face you don’t see at first, a quick glance will not catch it. Once you notice the tears, you realize her expression is not what it first seemed. These tears are not the tears of sadness, they are the tears of overwhelming pain, the pain crying where you have no say in the matter and the body simply weeps because it knows nothing else to do. All of these things I have felt, and I do feel. This painting reflects in a single image what a life of pain from an accident is like.

When she was about 18 she was on a bus that collided with a trolley car, she suffered serious injuries to her bones and spine, and was pierced by a handrail through her abdomen. This rendered her unable to conceive, which was a major blow to her, and her back and other places were broken. Injuries this significant even now would be a life sentence of pain, and  it was for her. She had 35 surgeries over her life. She spent a lot of time in a body cast and would paint them, and portraits of herself. No matter where she was, or how bad off she was, she was always creating. She was traveling in her mind where her body could not.

Frida painting her body cast in bed with a hand mirror.

Her life was pain physically and emotionally, she had a stormy relationship with Diego Rivera, and both influenced her art. The most poignant paintings I find that move me now, are her paintings that speak of her immense physical pain. I feel that on a very deep level I understand them much more than I did as a young teen that only knew emotional pain as the deepest. I also admire that despite all the pain and isolation, she stayed strong and was a powerful and opinionated woman. She would not let anything stop her. I think her stubbornness like mine was the thing that kept her going. The woman that says –

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” 

Knows and accepts that this is the way things will be, but that she will not let it ruin her life. She will not live an unhappy life. So she found a way to be happy, and she uses this as powerful inspiration to create some of the most moving art.

No matter what comes her way, she is able to overcome it due to her strength of will, before a surgery to amputate her foot she said –

Pies, para qué los quiero
Si tengo alas para volar

Which translates as “Feet, what do I need them for[,] I have wings to fly.” Everyone has something that can transport them like this, and even if you can’t paint you can enjoy looking at a painting and knowing that person felt as bad as you, but still saw all this beauty in the world.

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

You are never alone, pain can be isolating but it can only take your life away if you let it. All of this is why I dearly love Frida and her art, and I think she should be a symbol to all pain sufferers just what can happen if you don’t let your pain stop you.

We all have wings, you just have to get out there and use them.

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The Brain, It’s Not As Smart As You Think

We all like to think humans are at the top of all food chains, because we have our smarty smart pants brains, and this lifts us above the other animals on the planet. Our brain though, is not as smart as we would like to think, and it can easily be tricked. This is not always a bad thing, I have talked about how you can use your brain’s ability to be tricked to your advantage. Things like your mindset, having a supportive and caring Doctor/Healthcare provider, and things like the power of the placebos and prayer.

Luckily there is a wealth of information coming out all the time on new studies done on the brain, that are widening our understanding of how it and our nervous system work. If you haven’t read My Stroke of Insight you should, everyone should. Chronic pain or not, it is just a fantastic book with great ideas everyone should know. The author also did a 20 minute Ted Talk on the concepts and covers them broadly. If you aren’t the reading type, please watch her Ted Talk below. Even if you are the reading type, watch it before you read the book. Her passion about people being kinder to themselves, and others, is something everyone should strive to achieve.

Jill Bolt Taylor – Stroke of Insight TED Talk

Her ideas about preventing negative thoughts, letting those appear and letting them go rather than feeding into a negative thought loop is something everyone can benefit from.  She has a lot more to say in her book, and it only took me a few hours to read. I highly recommend it.

There is also a lot of information coming out about placebos and their powerful effect on the body. What a wonderful world it would be if I could take a sugar pill that worked as well as an opiate, with no chance of addiction or side effects. Placebos are a fascinating thing, and the effect is easy to trigger. I have used the information I have learned on placebos to help treat my pain, like with migraines, and had almost unbelievable results. A great place to start with your understanding of placebos is with this quick Horizon documentary.

Horizon – The Power of the Placebo

There is also a really fun to watch series by National Geographic, called Brain Games, that explores the brain and gives you interesting ideas you can experiment with. Another book with a lot of information on nerves, pain and on mirror box therapy (which is one of the treatments used to treat CRPS) is Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran.

Why does all this information on brains, and nerves, and stuff matter? Well firstly, because pain is a neurological signal. If you are in chronic pain, you need to understand how the body, brain and nervous system all function so that you can not only better understand procedures and your own pain, but you can also help to minimize it in other ways. Secondly, knowing as much as you can about pain helps with coping with it, naming your demons gives you a way to fight them. Acknowledging and accepting your pain is part of the healing process and understanding it helps the whole process. Pain, as we like to say in Tai Chi, is there for a reason, it is telling you something is wrong. Learning to listen to the pain, and what your body is asking for helps you convey better information to your doctors, helps you to better treat yourself at home, and this overall will improve your condition and mental state. If you feel a bit rusty on biology, here are two great videos, the first will give you an overview of nerves, and the second is a great visual example of how pain signals are triggered, and then blocked by opiate pain medications.

Nerve Cells

Animation of Pain Signals and Opiates

Remember educating yourself, helps you more than anything. Knowing what you are fighting helps you to keep those positive thoughts and positive mindset to deal with your treatments, and your pain.