My beloved husband, Kent, died in January 2012, 3 years after diagnosis of a brain tumour. Our son was 2 1/2 and our daughter 3 months old. He and I were far too young. I am now hurtling through the black space of life without him.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Just breath

I've been dealing with some immense pain lately. The kind that comes in waves, and is sometimes crippling. Other times it sits quietly lurking in the background, reminding you it will be back. It is especially bad in the dark, and I arrive in my bedroom at night with that uneasy feeling of knowing what I have ahead of me, and what will mess with my sleep. In the mornings it makes me snap at my children and falter through my day.

But no! I'm not talking about grief! For better or worse, this time I am talking about physical pain. I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome - a nerve/blood vessel compression problem that stems from the neck, and creates pain through the shoulders and arms. For me (and most) the pain comes on at night due to the position of lying down, combined with the lack of movement.

I've had minor versions of this in the past, sometimes bad enough to visit an osteopath for a while (with no diagnosis before now) and sometimes it can be controlled with a massage or two. But this time it's hit me harder than I knew was possible. For many, many mornings I have woken with a pain in my shoulder so intense that I can't move it or touch it for about an hour, sometimes in the night as well, and a couple of times have nearly thrown up because of the pain. I have been stunned that it is possible to experience such pain, especially without having been in any kind of accident, and the morning before I first visited my chiropractor I was ready to check myself in to hospital. I've become a little scared of what my body can do to me. I have tried (no, not all together) regular panadol, voltaren, codeine, herbal anti-inflammatories, low dosage anti-depressants (often used in pain relief to help dampen down hyper-sensitive nerve endings), magnesium (to relax the muscles), epsom salts (another version of magnesium), acupuncture, chiropractic work, osteopathy, wheat packs, and a bucket load of hot showers. The pain killers haven't touched the sides; I have stopped taking them, though I continue to take voltaren in the hope that it is doing its anti-inflammatory work, and I'm currently waiting the two-three weeks for the anti-d's to kick in. 

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is normally caused by accident/injury or repetitive strain injury, and sometimes by abnormalities/enlargements or spasms. However I, and all the people working with me, believe it has been caused by bad breathing. Yes - breathing!

To breathe properly you need to breathe through your nose (not mouth) and deep into your stomach, not your chest. Getting it wrong can lead to a remarkable amount of distress, and stress on the body. Have a look at the Breathing Works website if you are interested. I read a book called Breathe to Succeed many years ago, and met with the author, physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith, a number of times in the years following. I have been a chronic over-breather, and have had to learn to breath well, especially in times of stress. Just prior to my current shoulder pain coming on, I experienced a few days of chronic over-breathing which leads to an appalling breathing technique, where I suck air in to my upper chest area and feel the strain in my shoulders and neck. It becomes a vicious cycle and it's hard to get out.

So yes. I think I am talking about grief after all. I have long been fascinated by the impact of mental health on physical health, and don't believe it should be underestimated. Over the past few years I have almost expected grief and strain to have an impact on my physical wellbeing, particularly my breathing, and have been pleased to have made it through so far. When my shoulder pain came on I had been in a good space, mentally, and almost felt as though grief, rather annoyingly, was just finding another outlet. Will it never leave me alone?

This kind of pain strikes me as another part of the grief journey, and I'm trying to just ride with it and know I will get to the other end. I am working now with an outstanding osteopath and acupuncturist who has been good to me over many years. When he told me that in eastern medicine, lungs are the organ of grief, well, it took my breath away. He and I are making progress, I think I have the right mix of medication, and I'm practicing my breathing. These days still find me regularly lying on the floor looking at the ceiling, but instead of being accompanied by tears, I'm accompanied by nice steady breathing. Sometimes all you have to do is just breath.

Breathe! By Marcelo Jimenez


  1. That is a beautiful picture. I'm so sorry this pain is pervading your life. Keep breathing... xx

  2. Another beautiful piece. x

  3. I'd never heard of TOS before - even abbreviated it looks very medical and nasty. I was going to suggest the name of someone to visit, but then I read you have built a relationship with an osteopath and acupuncturist and I wonder if it is the same person.

  4. Hi
    I was really surpirsed to hear you also have TOS! Actually I used to have TOS which presented as paget schroetter syndrom. I believe stress and posture definately had something to do with it. The good news is I am pain free now after trying everything like you. What worked best for me were targetted stretches around the shoulder / neck chest area, best in the shower when your musles are warm, focussing on posture,- no slouching and acupuncture, although I think acupuncutre was more of a temporary relief. I found drugs just masked the pain. Hope this might help, I feel your pain. Take care!


  5. I am so pleased you wrote this Angela. I have been wondering how your pain issues have been going and it is so good to know you have a diagnosis and now a path to recovery! I love the picture - a reminder of how crucial and life-gving the breath is xx