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Real Life Stories: My Journey From Runner to Battling Chronic Pain

Posted by Mike Phipps on January 4, 2022

A set of 6 old books on a white surface. The words – Real Life Stories – are visible

Amanda Nicholson woke up one morning with chronic pain in her neck – she had never been in so much pain. In this month’s Real Life Stories, Amanda tells us how she fights through the pain and finds ways to feel free and enjoy life. 

Amanda Nicholson holding a Race for Life medal; she is wearing a pink running jersey and is standing in front of a pond

Couch to 5K is a well-known running plan for beginners. The plan involves 3 runs a week, with a day of rest in-between each run, taking a person from inactivity to completing a 5K run in just 9 weeks. Unfortunately, my health journey from couch to 5K, and then a marathon, was almost the reverse of this!

I gave my fitness regime my everything. I went to the gym twice a week and it wasn’t unusual for me to do five runs a week. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so good about myself.

My First 5K

Before I started running, I had an image in my head of me coasting along effortlessly, just like all the joggers I had seen. Of course, I was wrong, and I could barely run a mile without turning purple! I also scared a lot of local people with my heavy breathing, as I tried to manoeuvre around them!

It took about six months, rather than nine weeks, but I did eventually complete my first 5K.

Then The Pain Began

A picture of Amanda Nicholson running a half marathon

One night, at some point between completing my first 10K and training for a half-marathon, I woke in agony. It was my neck.

I’d never been in so much pain; though I’ve experienced far more since! No matter how I lay, I just couldn’t sleep. Everything made my neck worse. I put up with this for a few nights before going to see a doctor.

The doctor told me I needed to take a few days off, which I did, and then I carried on with my fitness regime. 

Completing A Marathon

I went on to complete a marathon, not in the 5 hours I hoped for, but in 5 hours and forty minutes. At least I can say I did it, or so I tell myself, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.

I never got the chance to beat that time, because this was a few years after the pain began and it had already spread to my shoulders and neck. Each attempt I made to run aggravated this area, because of the jolting movements.

The back of one of Amanda's racing jerseys with the words – I race for my dad – as well as a picture of him

I managed two 5K Race for Life events in memory of my dad who died from cancer, but I decided the pain it caused was too much and hung up my running shoes, while hoping that I would find a way to go back to it someday.

Learning To Help Myself

I went to the doctor several times, as working also started to become a problem. I did seven weeks in a warehouse, but was in complete agony by the time that job finished. So, I was glad when the temporary contract ended earlier than expected.

The doctors seemed to have two ‘solutions’ – physiotherapy and pain medication. Given that I had already experienced pain for several years, I knew medication would just mask the pain and if I couldn’t feel it, how would I know if what I was doing wasn’t physically harming me and making things worse? Besides, I didn’t want to use medication as a long-term solution. I use it now, but only as a last resort, when the pain gets too bad.

So, I tried physio, but after several months, the exercises were making the pain worse, and I stopped going and started looking for my own alternatives instead.

Some gels, like Pernaton, worked for a while, but I think the action of rubbing it in was just as helpful as the gel itself! I later remembered this and invested in a back massager. I have to use it every day, but it plays a part in reducing how much pain I’m in. 

My New Normal

A black and blue ergonomic office chair

As I’m lucky enough to work from home, I’ve made adaptations to my work area. I have an ergonomic chair and a footrest. I’d never considered this before, but I notice the difference now if I forget to use it. I bought a laptop stand and this really does help with positioning my laptop at the right angle and height for me. I also have some glasses, so I don’t lean forwards to see – all these things have helped, so I can now work and earn a living, and have a bit of a social life, too.

I can’t work as fast as most people because the pain creeps up, then becomes unbearable. I also can’t go to gigs, where I would need to stand for several hours at a time. It’s about realising my limits and knowing when to push myself, but not pushing too hard.

Another thing I use is kinetic tape, which helps with my posture. I felt self-conscious about this at first, if I was wearing strappy tops in summer for example, but after a while, I realised that if something helps me live a relatively normal life, it doesn’t matter how it looks!

I think it helps that now I’m in my forties, despite wanting to look good sometimes, I no longer place as much importance on it, especially if it’s a choice between reducing my pain and how I look. Most people will rarely be close enough to notice the kinetic tape anyway.

Living With The Pain

I can’t imagine any doctor being able to offer me any additional help nowadays. I’ve seen several doctors and they always talk about physio and/or pain medication. So, I try to make the best of it.

Amanda Nicholson standing up, reading from a book at the Manchester Central Library

I help run a spoken word night, co-host several podcasts and have put together and edited two anthologies, working with other writers. One of these was for charity. As I can no longer take part in Race for Life in memory of my dad, I use my other passion (literature) to raise money for cancer charities. This is just one way I’ve had to adapt.

I’ve met a lot of people through my love of writing. I’m not sure if most of them even realise I suffer with chronic pain. I don’t try to hide it, but I do try to get on with my life as much as possible, so it’s not something I spend a lot of time talking about.

Although I may never get to the point where I can run again, I know I’ll miss it, but will deal with it. I’ve found a way to work. I used to think working would mean being in so much pain and I’d spend all my non-working hours recovering from the pain before going back the next day and starting again. Working from home and managing my pain has made it more bearable. When I get rare pain free days, I try to make the most of them, and I definitely appreciate them more.

It was the freedom I initially missed when I could no longer run, but I’ve discovered there are many other ways to feel free and enjoy life.