Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chronic in the Kitchen

Adequate nutrition is a vital part of maintaining one's wellness. Eating well is important for everyone, but it is absolutely integral to those of us whose bodies reject the notion of "healthy"-- putting in good food is the only way to stay afloat with chronically ill bodies. We need wholesome food to take with medications so they don't screw up our stomachs and our minds. Nutrients to help protect compromised immune systems. Foods that don't make us sicker.

The problem with this is that chronic pain can make cooking feel impossible. A lot of days, it actually is impossible; you can't make a flared body go if it doesn't want to. But that doesn't negate the need for a decent meal. Fortunately, there are some things you can do when you're feeling a bit more physically capable so that flares don't leave you stranded in a food desert. I can't tell you what types of food are good for your body, but I can offer some tips that help any chronically ill would-be chef.

Bring the workspace to you with a portable table. Some kitchen designs are all about efficiency, which is great for those of us with chronic pain, but many designs make inefficient use of counter space. This translates to more walking back and forth in the kitchen as you gather your cooking implements and your ingredients-- not good when every extra step is causing pain and fatigue. Cut down on these steps around the kitchen by using a sturdy portable card-table as your cooking home-base. Place the card table close to where you'll be doing most of the food preparation-- generally near the stove. Before you start cooking, put all your needed tools and ingredients onto the card table. Now when you're cooking, you'll be able to reach behind you to grab what you need instead of having to go across the kitchen.

Use chairs to work sitting down. One of the hardest things about cooking with chronic pain is that cooking so often involves hours of standing. Standing when you chop your ingredients, standing over the stove, then standing over the sink to clean up. All this standing can be mitigated, if not eliminated, by using a chair in the kitchen. Computer chairs work great because you can adjust the height to meet the needs of each station in your kitchen. Some tasks are a little awkward in the chair-- like dishes--  but having the chair to take breaks helps keep pain levels from spiking, even if you don't complete the whole chore sitting down.
Cook huge meals and freeze individual portions. Remember when we talked about how cooking is impossible during flares? If you have leftovers in your freezer, all you have to do is pop a container into the microwave. And luckily, it's often easier to cook a bigger portion of a meal than a single serving. AllRecipes has a handy feature for its recipes which allows you to manipulate the serving size of a dish. Store (slightly cooled) leftovers in a freezer/microwave safe dish (I like glassware, but be sure not to over-fill!) There are lots of recipes out there for foods that freeze/reheat well to suit any diet plan. My personal favorite is manacotti and red-sauce; spaghetti sauce gets more flavorful as it sits, and the noodles are already cooked. Soup is also great in this regard, and you can freeze it into cute little bricks. Having a yummy, hot meal makes a flare a little more bearable.

Have the right blade. Chopping veggies is a chore that sore hands anticipate with dread. It becomes a total nightmare if you don't have a decent, sharp knife. The sharper the knife, the less pressure you have to put behind it to make it work; this translates to less pain and impact on your hands. Find out which knife type feels best to you; personally, I find that knives with bigger blades are easier because I don't have to grip as tightly. Kitchen scissors are also much easier for me to use than knives because I can rely on the pressure of two hands squeezing rather than one rocking wrist.

Break the work into chunks. To prevent yourself from getting too fatigued and sore from working in the kitchen, break your work into short, manageable stages and rest in between them. This is easier with some meals than with others, but the principal can apply to almost any meal. Take a break after getting everything together. Take a break after getting things cut up. Take a break when everything is mixed together. Do whatever you can to save your energy for when your food hits the frying-pan, when you absolutely must attend to it. When baking, you can take hours or days between some steps while you let your dough chill in the refrigerator. And don't get down on yourself for breaks- always remember it's better that something come together slowly than not at all. 

Keep healthy grab-and-go food ready. There are times when you need food now. Maybe your blood sugar is crashing, maybe you need something to eat with your medication. Whatever the reason, grab-and-go food is important to keep around. Of course a lot of this depends on personal needs and taste preference, but here are some grab-and-go foods worth considering.
          • Almonds
          • Plain yogurt with frozen fruit
          • Hard-boiled eggs
          • Meal-replacement bars
          • Cereal
          • Cheese and crackers with fruit

Monday, October 21, 2013

Life-Hacks for Chronic Pain

Life with chronic pain is hard. Pain can limit nearly every daily task one needs to accomplish in order to live a functional life. Even the little things, like showering or making food, are Olympic level tasks when faced with intense pain.  Life hacking refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. Life hacks are supposed to make the world easier-- something those of us with chronic pain can certainly appreciate. There are lots of general life hacks that can help people irrespective of disability that can be found on the web. Lifehacker and Lifehack offer a plethora of tips and tricks, as does the life-hack tag on Tumblr or Pintrest.

But for those of us with chronic pain, things that most people don't need help with become fiasco's that need their own special tips and tricks. Here are some of my favorite chronically ill life-hacks.

  • Make a hobby bucket. A hobby bucket is any closed or mostly-closed container that can house the stuff you need for he projects that you like to do. It lends well to fabric and yarn craft, art supplies, scrapbooking or study-stuff, etc. Anything smallish and not super fragile that will keep you entertained. The benefit of a hobby bucket over other types of organization is that your hobby bucket is made to follow you around the house. It's closed, so it can flop over on the bed or survive that accidental fall between the couch and the desk. A bucket with a hard plastic lid makes a great tray-table to use for work space if you're someplace without a fixed surface, like in bed. 
  • Make warm rice buddies. Rice buddies are portable, microwavable heat-packs, and they are a godsend for sore joints and cold feet alike. They stay warm for a long time, and provide a nice moist heat, or, you can keep your rice buddy in the freezer for a cold pack that never feels so cold that it hurts like regular ice packs. They're also incredibly easy to make and to customize; it's just plain white rice (regular, not instant!) sewn inside any sort of fabric sachet. The sachet can be as simple as a plain tube-sock, or can be a beautifully patterned pillowcase. If you'd like your rice-buddy to smell like something other than white rice, you can add essential oil or tea-leaves into the rice before sewing the sachet closed. More detailed instructions available at Instructables.
  •  Used closed containers. Sort of in the spirit of the hobby bucket, using closed containers for everything is a great way to avoid messes, particularly if chronic pain weakens your grip or challenges your balance. Use water bottles instead of glasses or cups, and Tupperware™or another similarly locking dish instead of bowls to prevent your drink or dinner from ending up all over the floor. It's especially thrifty to save and wash the containers that come into your house already with product in them (i.e. sour cream, cool-whip, etc) Great for getting that cereal from the kitchen to the table without simultaneously getting it all over you.
  • Shower Seats. Showering can be near impossible when you're battling pain and fatigue. Standing for long enough to get clean is often not an option. This is where a shower seat can save you. There are specially made shower seats available in the assistive device section of many drug-stores, or you can use any all-plastic stool you find. Put the shower seat in the shower, turn the water on, then get in and sit down-- be careful when first sitting, because your seat might slide around a bit. Now you're showering in comfort.
  • Utilize opiate potentiators (with your doctor's approval). Often, good management of chronic pain involves using prescription pain medication. However, tolerance and overuse are big concerns held by doctors. One of our duties as a pain patient, then, is to work with our doctor to find the minimum amount of pain medication that we can take and still live our lives. One tool in your arsenal of using less could be the use of an opiate potentiator-- a non-narcotic substance that helps increase the effects of opiate pain medication. This is something you must talk to your doctor about before trying, but if approved, they can be used to help ameliorate your pain on very bad days. Some common potentiators are acetaminophen, caffeine and ibuprofen.
  • Use speech to text. When your hands hurt, typing is frustrating at the best of times and impossible at the worst. This limits computer usage, and can leave you feeling isolated, bored and lonely. Luckily, both PC and Mac computers come with speech-to-text dictation tools right out of the box. This software allows you to speak into your computer's microphone and prompt the computer to both do commands and type for you. There's something of a learning curve as the computer learns to recognize the sounds of your unique voice, but they're pretty simple for the user from day one. Learn to access speech-to-text on your PC, or on your Mac. (If you're running Linux, you don't have an embedded dictation software, but an external product is available here.) 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to Live On Your Couch (And Still Feel Productive)

The unfortunate reality of many invisible illnesses is that they lay you out, flat. Pain, fatigue and other symptoms can mean a huge allotment of time can only be spent on the couch. Many illnesses cause disability to the extent that it hampers one's ability to hold a job-- the couch becomes the main resting perch as days melt into each other until the next medical appointment. Pain holds you hostage, and it's easy to let innumerable couch-locked days pass you by in a fatigued stupor. But this cycle of nothingness can breed depression, loneliness, and a feeling that you're wasting your life.

Obviously there are times when we don't need to be on the couch, and all of us with chronic pain take those days and run with them. Conversely, there are days when couch-productivity is going to be nill-- days when the pain is 9 out of 10 high and you're incoherent, there's no way you should even try to do more than exist through it. But many days, when the pain is high enough to trap you but you've still got a modicum of mental clarity, it's possible (but not always easy) to be really productive while sitting on your couch. Here are some of my favorite (thus necessarily, free) resources to help you learn, create, and better yourself from the pain-addled discomfort of your davenport.

1. That college class you always wanted to take, but never had time to fit in your schedule? Chances are, you'll be able to find it on iTunes U. From the iTunes Store menu in iTunes, there's a link for iTunes U in the upper right corner. From there, an interface introduces you to a world of totally free college lectures and courses. Many big-name universities (think MIT, Harvard, etc.) have a plethora of classes ripe for the listening. Some come with video or a PowerPoint, others are simply audio tracks. iTunes U is a great way to enrich your brain from your chair when you're not capable of much else.

2. The great Classic novels that you always felt you had an obligation to read are available from Project Gutenberg. Like their namesake, Johannes Gutenberg, father of the printing press, Project Gutenberg's aim is to help spread the written word to the masses. These eBooks are free (at least in the US) because their copyright has expired. They also offer a number of free audiobooks, read by person or by computer, if reading isn't an option for you.

3. Learn some of the peer-reviewed scientific research for your medical condition through the National Institute of Health's research database, PubMed. When you really want to go to your doctor with specific research about a symptom you're experiencing, this is the place to get it. Knowing more about your condition is empowering, but some private websites have a heavy bias and can present you with inaccurate information. The scientific community helps guard against inaccurate information by presenting studies to a large group of scientists who can all help verify the results and validity of the study. If it passes the muster, it gets put on PubMed. PubMed is also invaluable for seeing what sort of research your doctors may be involved in-- you just search their name. This can help identify what areas your doctor specializes in and often a general feel for their preconceptions about patients.

4. Become a master in retouching photos and basic graphic design with the Gimp. "Gimp" stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is a long way of saying "Linux-based free photosho0p." The layout is a bit more rudimentary than the proprietary image manipulation software, but still has all the same capabilities. For those who don't know where to start, there's a plethora of websites that offer tutorials, like Gimp Tutorials and Gimpology

5. Explore the universe through NOVA documentaries provided by PBS. There are documentaries covering a wide range of interests, all with interviews and research from top experts. Episodes are usually about an hour, and packed with good knowledge. They're fascinating, often visually stunning, and allow you to just sit back and absorb the information. Perfect for days when you need something intellectually satisfying but really can't do much at all.

P.S. Apologize for general lack of online presence. My illness has made it hard for me to do much typing. I started this post in August-- phooey on me for telling you all about productivity!