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Dealing with Chronic Pain in College

Dealing with Chronic Pain in College

The first thing I did when I got to class one chilly February morning was ask to leave. I’d been feeling crampy all morning, although my period was nowhere in sight. Then, as I stopped for coffee on campus before class, it happened. I felt a sharp and sudden pain in my lower left side. As I hobbled to class, hot coffee spilling down my hand, I only had one thought in mind: a cyst had ruptured on my left ovary. Again.

Since the age of 16, I’ve been no stranger to ovarian cysts. After waking up with a double-whammy of two ruptures in a single night the morning after the Super Bowl, I spent the next three years suffering from two or three each year. While all that was happening, I was also slowly increasing to higher and higher birth control dosages in order to, as one doctor put it, “calm the ovaries.”

I’ve also suffered from pelvic cramping during, well, everything. It would come and go throughout the month, leaving me crumpled in bed, occasionally missing class and forgoing nights out with friends. After suffering for years with no explanation, a doctor finally suggested I might have endometriosis, a chronic pain condition. There's no cure, but there is successful treatment with some lifestyle changes, pain medication, and hormonal contraceptive.

Being a student with chronic pain can be limiting. When you have five classes to study for, an internship, a job, three student clubs, and friends to worry about, how do you deal with chronic pain in college?

I was forced to find an answer. What helped me most was reminding myself that my body comes first. You can’t be the best possible student without being in the best possible health. Don’t push yourself to your limits; prioritize yourself.

Second, find a nearby doctor who you like. And it is necessary to find someone you really do like. Just before I went abroad for a semester, I visited the gynecologist at my health center for a birth control refill. After listening to me complain about the pain and express worry about being in another country, she recommended that I see another doctor. Then I saw another doctor, and another one after that. One suggested that the pain was all in my head. Another rolled her eyes and called in another round of useless antibiotics. Finally finding a doctor who took my word and committed to treatment was important, and worth the headache. 

If you feel comfortable, let your school or professors know what's going on with you. Often times, there are advocacy centers on campus that can connect you to resources that will make management easier and alert your professor if you need to miss class or assignments. Find a community, even if it's not IRL. When I’m frustrated, I turn to Twitter. I’ve found a multitude of folks suffering from similar conditions who have given me the support and kindness I need to get through the day.

Another thing that helped me was mapping out my symptoms. They tend to get more severe around my period, so I can anticipate when I’ll feel the worse. The weekend before my period is expected to come, I arm myself with plenty of Advil, a heating pad, and some tea.

Above all, practice self-care. Don't think twice about taking a night to yourself and skipping a party that all your friends are going to; there will always be more. And be kind to your body. It’s the only one you’ve got.

By Chelsea Cirruzzo, 21

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