When Lauren Cannell was hit by a truck while cycling in 2015, she was left with multiple arm injuries.
It wasn’t the first time the police senior sergeant had dealt with such a major health scare, having suffered a brain haemorrhage while at the gym a few years before.
After two years, seeing multiple doctors and even having surgery, she was no closer to recovery.
Senior Sergeant Cannell, from Launceston, Tasmania, was in so much pain she admits she was even left wondering if she wanted to live anymore.
“I just felt like, ‘if this is what my life’s going to be, I don’t really want to live like this,'” she said.
Running to get over trauma
The sporty Tasmanian mother had started long-distance running after suffering PTSD following her road accident.
And while her injuries had healed, she developed a common runners’ condition in one knee, where the tissue rubs against the bone.
After being given painkillers, Senior Sergeant Cannell returned to running.
But she suffered a stress fracture to her ribs and pelvis, and months after it should have healed, she was still in agony.
She stopped the exercise – but the pain got worse.
Now, it was not only in her knee – but everywhere.
She couldn’t go to work, and her anxiety spiralled.
“It felt like my whole body was in intense pain,” she said.
“It was terrifying in a way because I didn’t understand it.”
At one point, she even thought she had some kind of cancer.
Senior Sergeant Cannell also struggled to sleep and when she did, she had nightmares about dying.
Doctors had no answers, saying all her injuries should have healed.
She was desperate, relying on strong, addictive painkillers.
And her story is not uncommon, experts say.
Pain like Senior Sergeant Cannell’s is the most common reason Aussies go to their GP, Professor Mark Hutchinson from Adelaide Medical School said – with women more likely to suffer than men.
He said chronic pain is an “epidemic”.
“Roughly one in four of us will experience chronic pain in our lifetime,” he said.
“We’re looking at a multi-billion-dollar cost to health and society.
“That is a problem, which if we put at a long term consequence to the Australian people, it exceeds diabetes, cancer and heart disease.”
Finally, after getting no relief, even after having surgery on her knee, in 2019, Senior Sergeant Cannell went to see an exercise physiologist.
They specialise in understanding the body’s response to exercise.
And she had a breakthrough.
She was told her pain was in fact not related to any of her old injuries as she had believed.
It was in fact, all likely being triggered by her brain’s internal wiring system, in relation to her many previous episodes of pain.
And while it was difficult for her to understand at first, Senior Senior Sergeant Cannell started doing her own research.
“You think it has to be related to an injury because you’re in so much pain, but he explained it to me in terms of your brain starts setting up patterns when you’ve suffered from pain,” she said.
She also watched a TED Talk by Professor Lorimer Mosely, Professor of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of South Australia, which explained the concept.
He was once bitten on the leg by a brown snake while out walking, which was intensely painful as well as life-threatening.
And a few years later, when he was out walking in a similar setting, he was simply scratched on the leg by a twig – but experienced a similar level of pain.
He says his brain related the two experiences and opted to try and “protect” his leg by triggering the intense reaction.
That’s how chronic pain works, he said.
Chronic pain is pain that continues for more than three months after an injury, surgery, or another cause.
It affects 3.2 million Australians.
“The most common misunderstanding is that pain is providing you with a marker of the condition of your body part,” he said.
“It actually never does that.
“What pain does is it urges you to protect a given body part.”
He explained the body’s nerves, which he dubs “danger detectors”, are constantly scanning for potential danger.
When they detect a change, they’ll signal the central nervous system – the spinal cord and brain – and the brain may decide to respond with pain, to try and “protect” that area.
He said pain is also influenced by many things which have nothing to do with the body, such as if you’re feeling sad or stressed.
While he’s working on getting more training for GPs, Professor Moseley also advises sufferers of chronic pain to turn to professionals like physiotherapists and psychologists for help once injuries have been ruled out.
But he warned there’s no “quick fix”.
“People really have to understand themselves, their own pain system, and retrain it,” he said.
For Senior Sergeant Cannell, getting her head around the new concept was the start.
With the help of a psychologist, an occupational therapist and Pain Revolution, she gradually withdrew her painkillers.
She is now back at work, with the support of her fiancé Paul and daughter Taylah.
Though she still has some pain, she is able to handle it.
But she can’t understand why it took so long to have the fresh concept of pain be mentioned to her.
“It’s almost like looking at it from this new perspective,” she said.
As well as changes to the regulation of addictive opioid pain killers, it includes $2.5 million for education and training and $4.3 million for pain management services in rural areas.
“The Action Plan, currently being considered by Health Ministers for endorsement, aims to improve awareness and understanding of pain; ensure health practitioners are educated and informed to provide best-practice treatment and care; and identify the most appropriate and effective mechanisms to advance pain research,” a spokesman told 9News.