Greenbelt support group a salve for sufferers
Sept. 22, 2004
Laura C. Jackson
Special to The Gazette

Gwenn Herman used to work full time, play racquetball and lead an active social life with her children. All that changed after a car accident.

Today she takes medication for chronic pain, slows down when she needs to rest and refuses to hang on to anger, remorse or other negative emotions. She has also started support groups, called Pain Connection, for other chronic pain sufferers, including one that meets monthly in Greenbelt.

"When I was rear-ended nine years ago, I found that nothing existed for people with chronic pain," said Herman, who lives in Potomac.

Herman endured MRIs, surgery and more to alleviate pain caused by a disc protruding in her spine.

When her condition improved in 1999, she started a chain of support groups in the metropolitan area. A licensed, clinical professional runs each group, with 10 to 30 people typically in attendance.

Some group members suffer from arthritis or workplace injuries, Herman said. Others may have cancer, tumors, fibromyalgia or other illnesses. Although the causes are different, she said the stages of dealing with chronic pain are similar.

"First you're in shock because you're in so much pain," said Herman. "You're working hard to combat the pain while going from doctor to doctor to get treatment."

Pain sufferers, she added, are often frustrated about the emotional upheaval in their lives as well as the difficulty they encounter when trying to explain their symptoms to physicians.

"Doctors said I was overly sensitive, and I've given birth naturally twice," Herman said.

When chronic pain sufferers realize that they might have to reduce their work hours, go on disability or get help to care for young children, they can experience feelings of loss. Not surprisingly, those with chronic pain typically experience depression.

"Their personalities change," said Herman. "They lose focus and they're short-tempered because the pain is so bad. They might also isolate themselves because they can't participate in social functions as easily as they could before."

Herman's support groups help pain sufferers find the road to recovery. Participants learn how to accept their new lives and use techniques ito manage pain.

"When you're in pain, you're looking for help, and you think your life will go back to the way it was," said Herman.

The key to rebuilding a new life, she said, is accepting things as they are.

"It's a hard process," she said. "If you don't change, however, you'll stay stuck in remorse and resentment. You have to redefine normal and deal with your body the way it is now."

Family members play a valuable role in the healing process, Herman said, by serving as the injured person's eyes and ears during medical appointments.

"When you're in pain, you can't concentrate well," Herman said. "Plus, medical professionals sometimes don't understand what you're saying or they think you're making it all up in your head. A family member can step in and tell the doctor how you were before and how you are now. They can be your advocate."

A person with chronic pain works closely with a trusted physician to find the right type of medications to alleviate suffering. The support groups provide additional assistance by teaching participants how to manage pain with imagery and relaxation techniques.

"We teach participants to deal with the pain messages our bodies send out," Herman said. "If I'm at the grocery store and I suddenly feel pain, I might panic and feel as though I should rush home and take more medicine. Or I can calm down and use deep breathing and imagery to ... control the pain myself."

Because strong negative emotions can aggravate symptoms, support group meetings focus on lifestyle changes and coping issues.

"We don't come in and bad-mouth doctors," she said.

Pain Connection

How it makes a difference: Gwenn Herman has launched chronic pain support groups in the area to help pain sufferers develop coping skills. A Greenbelt group meets monthly in the library at 11 Crescent Road. For information on attending the group or starting one in another area, call 301-309-2444 or visit