By Melissa Swanson
Given the option, which would you choose:
I asked a group of fibromites this question, and the majority responded, "No pain." I disagreed. My answer was, "No brain fog."
Fibro fog is so frustrating. If I could choose between having pain and fatigue or brain fog, I would choose pain and fatigue. I get so stressed out when I mix up words, am unable to form a complete sentence or am so easily distracted.
My fibro fog is not nearly as bad as it was two years ago when I forgot to keep up on my medication refills and realized that I had ran out on a Friday night. I was not able to get my refills until Monday and had no idea how quickly I would start going through withdrawals. It was one of the worst weekends I have ever experienced.
I spent all day this past Saturday remembering what I had forgotten to do earlier in the week. All of my non-fibro friends and family continue to tell me that it "happens to all of us as we get older." This is not something someone with fibromyalgia wants to hear. Honestly, that statement scares me to death. If it is "normal" for us to lose our cognitive skills as we age, will we actually notice a difference? Or will it increasingly get worse?
Why is this happening to us? Which comes first the chicken or the egg? Or in this case, the Pain or the Brain Fog?
Studies show that the cognitive dysfunction caused by fibromyalgia happens because our brain is so overwhelmed with pain signals that it can not process, retain or recall information.
So why am I still having memory problems if I have been able to find the right mix of treatments to keep my pain at a manageable level?
I had a sleep study and the results showed that I have sleep maintenance disorder, which means I do not ever reach REM sleep. I recently learned that during sleep, stage 4 it is the time that our body reaches the restorative healing sleep. It is also the time when our short term memories are turned into long term memories. At least that can account for some of my memory loss.
Three years ago, I was driving home from work one day on the same roads I had been taking for 20 years. I took the wrong turn. It devastated me. I suddenly was looking around thinking, “where am I?” I have a very long list of similar incidents of forgetfulness, but ironically I can't find it.
My Lima Bean Challenge
Last year my students and I were conducting a lima bean experiment, and they decided they wanted to know how they tasted cooked. I told them that I would take them home and cook them. The next day they asked me if I had brought them. I replied, "UGH! No, I forgot to cook them last night."
Finally (I am embarrassed to say how many days later I remembered to cook the beans), I cooked them and put them in the refrigerator. The next morning my second grader asked if I remembered to cook the beans.
"Yes, but I forgot them in the refrigerator."
"Make a note" she said.
I wanted to cry but instead, I laughed. If she only knew how many notes I had in my bag, my purse, on my counters and by my chair.
The next morning I pulled the beans from the refrigerator and put them on the kitchen counter beside my water bottle. I went back to the refrigerator to get a lemon, which I cut it up and put into my water bottle. I was excited for my daughter to ask me, "Did you bring the beans?"
When I got to class and began to prepare for my students, I reached into my bag. Yep, you guessed it. I left the beans on the counter.
"Again?" said my fourth grader, "you need to make a note."
She didn't wait to see if I was going to write a note. She grabbed one of my Post-it notes and wrote on it, "Bring beans please."
Forgetting the lima beans was not causing harm to anyone – other than making me look bad to my students. Unfortunately, this kind of forgetfulness happens all too many times when things really do matter.
The difference from now and three years ago, when I couldn't remember how to get home, is my work environment. I was working a very stressful job and was in a lot of pain. When we are in stress and pain, our brain is too busy to think and remember. I have also learned some things I can do to help reduce some of the brain fog.
What are typical fibro fog symptoms?
Difficulty recalling words or names, using incorrect words, difficulty expressing thoughts/emotions
Forgetfulness, difficulty remembering where you put things, forgetting what you are doing, unable to recall what was heard or read
Easily distracted, difficulty paying attention to more than one thing at a time
Not knowing where you are going or where you are, not recognizing your surroundings, impaired sense of directio
What can we do to alleviate some of the brain fog and improve our cognitive abilities?
Rest your body.
Keep a daily routine.
Plan your days. Use one to-do list and one calendar.
Use Reminders & Alarms. Smartphones have amazing apps to help you remember everything.
Focus on one thing at a time.
Meditate/Do Calming Exercises. Try meditation, gentle yoga, water exercise classes, listening to music.
Breathe. Fibromites forget to breathe; we tend to hold our breath or take shallow breaths. Slow deep breathes will help increase the oxygen and the blood flow in the brain. Cold ice on the forehead can slow down the feel of panic/anxiety.
Exercise. Exercise creates endorphins that help eliminate pain and brain fog.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. Stick to a bedtime routine. Use a sleep mask, a good mattress and pillow, a darkened room and light noise.
Eat a Healthy Diet. Avoid processed foods, gluten, sugar, caffeine and various food additives and preservatives which can make pain and brain fog worse.
Supplements. B vitamins, omega 3, Ginkgo biloba and magnesium can all help support better cognitive functioning.
Play Games. Puzzles, brain teasers, Scrabble and word-find games can help keep you mentally stimulated.
The #1 Thing to Remember:
Early on in my illness I forgot my parent's phone number. I had always dialed it – never speed dialed. I sat there staring at the phone, bawling. Another time, I couldn't remember what locker I had put my clothes in at the pool. Again, I stared at the lockers and bawled. All that accomplished was for my emotions to take over, and the ensuing panic led to a major increase in pain.
The most important thing to do is to STAY CALM
and remember you are a
Fibro Warrior ~ Living Life!
Melissa Swanson, a frequent ProHealth contributor, is a chronic pain patient, advocate, and author. Through her Facebook page, she offers positive encouragement, medical information, resources, and support to 14,000+ fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. In addition to her own blog, Melissa has been published in "Living Well with Fibromyalgia" and the NFMCPA "Advocate Voice." She's a graduate of the 2014 Class of Leaders Against Pain Scholarship Training sponsored by the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association and a member of the Leaders Against Pain Action Network.