Aiden Kennedy had just moved to Australia in 1987 when a boating accident changed his life forever.
The Dubliner who now lives at Willow Park in the city sustained a serious back injury when his boat ran into a storm in Queensland. He had only been living in the country for a month.
“I had gone out there to live but the accident changed everything. My lower back was injured. There was a lot of muscle and nerve damage, I was left with chronic pain, it was very bad. They wouldn’t operate on it in Sydney. I had to come back to Ireland to be operated on.”
Despite surgery and rehabilitation the pain persisted, curtailing his lifestyle and forcing him to give up a career he loved in advertising and research - he had worked as a freelance researcher with the BBC. But through it all he tried to remain positive, believing he was lucky to be alive.
“When I got injured everything stopped, my whole career went. When I was in hospital in Dublin there were people in the orthopaedic section who died. I had a philosophical outlook. I was lucky. There are people far worse than me. That’s what keeps me going. I had a brilliant team helping me and I learned to walk again.”
Mr Kennedy’s condition worsened during the past 10 years making everyday activities difficult. “I’d been suffering very badly and was on a lot of medication. I can’t commit to anything. I miss work hugely, I worked 20 hours a day, that was my life.
“The pain never leaves you, it’s in my back and legs and goes up my neck. When it’s bad, it’s brutal, it’s absolutely horrific. I have spasms. Once I was on the floor for two and a half days and nights, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get near the phone.
“I’m incredibly careful about what I do, everything is structured and organised. If I do something I never did before then I land myself in trouble. Walking up the stairs is dreadful, sitting down is very difficult, I spend most of my time lying in bed. I read a huge amount and listen to music. I don’t lift anything, I don’t pull or push. I don’t do anything out of the ordinary. I do the cleaning for 10 minutes at a time. If I go out it has to be all planned. When you start exerting yourself the level of pain jumps up. I don’t sleep, I get about two to three hours a night.”
His medication was playing “havoc” with his system and he was eager to come off it, he says. “My body did not like it. I wanted to go off it. I was referred to Dr David O’Gorman, [a consultant in anaesthesia and chronic pain at University Hospital Galway] who runs the pain clinic and he helped me along. I came off all the medication and instead went on a slow release anaesthetic plaster. It is a large four by four patch which I put on for 12 hours. It made a huge difference. I haven’t taken a tablet since.
“It’s great to know the clinic is there, I know if I am in bad trouble they [the staff] are there.”
He credits a programme run by the facility for patients suffering from chronic pain with changing his life.
“It was organised by Dr O’Gorman. What he did was miraculous. I was lost and this helped me cope much better. It gave me encouragement and confidence. This was the first time I ever sat down with anybody with chronic pain, it was like a bonding session over three months. We can phone each other up now and support each other. I’m using techniques I learned, I’m using my mind to help control the pain.
“Nine of us from the west took part in this programme in Merlin Park. There were nine specialists helping us, psychiatrists, psychologists, physiotherapists, researchers, etc.”
Mr Kennedy is indebted to his neighbours and local shopkeeper for their support and kindness. “My life has been made so easy because of my neighbours. They ring me once a week so see if I am OK. Davoren’s shop [at Newcastle Road] is spectacular. I can ring them up and they will drop over my shopping. I’m very positive about the future, the progress I’ve made in the last five years is extraordinary.”
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is a significant health problem. Up to one in three adults in Ireland suffer from this condition which is classified as pain which lasts longer than three months.
The most severe level of pain and disability is reported by 10 per cent of those with the condition. Some 36 per cent of households are impacted by it. The cost per sufferer of living with it is about €10,000 per year. However, it is yet to be recognised as a condition in its own right and is often misdiagnosed.
While the lower back is the most common site of pain, the hips, knees, neck, joints, etc. can all be affected.
Chronic pain can affect all age groups, including children, explains Dr Brian McGuire, a clinical psychologist at the pain clinic at UHG and a lecturer in clinical psychology at the centre for pain research at NUI Galway. There is a higher prevalence of the condition among women.
“We did a study on the prevalence, impact and cost of chronic pain in Ireland, entitled the PRIME study. Three thousand people were surveyed through GP practices and one third of those who responded had chronic pain.”
The condition can be caused by an accident, fall, assault, or often minor things, he says, such as tripping off the kerb or slipping on the stairs. In older people it may be due to general wear and tear.
“You could have a relatively minor accident and end up with persistent whiplash pain. Some people have a chronic headache, they have it all the time, 24 hours a day. Others have lower back pain.”
The severity of the pain can vary. Some may have “mild” chronic pain while others “have the worst possible pain you can experience every day”.
Dr McGuire outlines that 12 per cent of those surveyed said they could only work reduced hours or not at all because of the condition. The study also reveals that participants with chronic pain were five times more likely to suffer from depression.
A complex condition, it can affect all areas of people’s lives. “Obviously their mood is affected. It can also affect their financial situation, their sleep, their ability to do everyday activities, such as lifting a child up, their self-esteem.”
Treatments, including medication, physiotherapy, chiropractic intervention and acupuncture can all help, he says.
People are referred to the pain clinic at UHG by their GP. “We help people develop coping strategies.
Chronic Pain Ireland will hold a national conference entitled “Recognising and Managing Chronic Pain - An Expert View 2011” at the Salthill Hotel this evening (Thursday) from 7.30pm to 10.30pm. The speakers will include a panel of experts specialising in the fields of chronic pain research and management including Dr David Finn and Dr Brian McGuire co-directors, centre for pain research at NUI Galway, Dr David O’Gorman, Galway University Hospitals, local GP Dr Ray Doyle, Senator David Norris and Mayor of Galway city Cllr Michael Crowe. The event is free and open to all.