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22/Apr/2021

Sex, intimacy and musculoskeletal conditions

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Note: This article was written from my perspective as a heterosexual woman in a long-term relationship. If you’d like to share your tips and advice about intimacy when you live with a musculoskeletal condition from a differing perspective, that we could share in another blog, we’d love to hear from you. Contact lisa@msk.org.au 

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Living with a musculoskeletal condition/s can sometimes interfere with your sex life. Pain, fatigue, body image issues and side effects from medications, can really interfere with this aspect of your life. Added to the physical and emotional effects of your condition, the everyday pressures of work/study, family, finances and COVID, can also affect your desire to be intimate.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In our report Making the Invisible Visible, we revealed that 32% of people said their condition had affected their ability to be intimate with their partner.

The good news is there are many things you can do to overcome many of these issues and enjoy a satisfying and fulfilling sex life.

Tips for happy sexy times

Be open and honest with your partner about how you feel. Only you know what hurts – both physically and emotionally. Show them the positions that cause you the least pain. If you’re feeling sad or depressed about how your body has changed, tell them this. Not letting them in, and not telling them what’s going on, can put a strain on your relationship.

Be kind to yourself. When our bodies change it’s understandable to feel sad or a sense of loss about the things we used to be able to do, or the way we used to look.

But it’s important not to get in the habit of describing yourself in a negative way – both to yourself and your partner – such as ‘I’m fat’, or ‘I’m ugly’. It’s not constructive, and it just makes you feel worse. It certainly doesn’t make you feel sexy! I know this is hard – we really are our own worst critic. Instead focus on the things you do like or love about your body. Take time to really look at your body and be proud of it. Over time look at the parts of your body you haven’t been so happy with, and look at them without the super-critical lens. Admire it…our bodies are amazing! And they’ll continue to change as our health changes and we grow older. So it’s important we become comfortable in our own skin.

Be kind to your partner. They may be worried about hurting you, or self-conscious about their body, or changes to their own health and wellbeing. If you haven’t been communicating well recently, they may be worried that they’ve done (or not done) something. Communication is key.

Talk with your doctor. This may be a little embarrassing or uncomfortable, but your doctor can give you practical advice about pain relief strategies, as well as sexual positions you can try that won’t aggravate your condition. You can also discuss your medications, in case they’re causing loss of libido or issues such as vaginal dryness. You can then explore the potential of alternative treatments.

Have a massage. Book an appointment with your favourite massage therapist and have a relaxation massage to soothe any muscle tension away. Or better still, ask your partner for a massage. A little oil, some light strokes along your arms, and some gentle back rubs, and the next thing you know, things have taken a lovely, sensual turn ❤. Read this article for some tips: How to give your partner a super hot erotic massage.

Plan things. It doesn’t sound terribly romantic or sexy, but putting some thought and planning into sexy times can make things so much easier. Consider taking a warm shower or bath to loosen up your muscles, take a pain reliever, do some stretches, use your heat pack, have a massage, or take a nap. Basically do all the things you know relieve your pain.

By planning, you can choose a time when you’re feeling your best, the kids have been shipped to the grandparents, the phones are off, and there are no other distractions.

Planning also involves setting the mood, so light some candles, wear something that makes you feel desirable and self-confident, dim the lights and put on some music.

Get adventurous! Try new positions – you know your body and what makes it hurt – so avoid those positions, and find new ones. Versus Arthritis (formerly Arthritis UK) has a great booklet that provides a range of different positions for you to try.

Use pillows to provide some support if you need it.

Try sex aids and toys – there’s a huge range available including vibrators, lubricants, feathers, rings, sexy wear – so pop down to the adult store together and find things that excite you both. Or go online and order them if you don’t feel comfortable going into a store.

Read erotica or watch porn together – whatever excites you and gets you in the mood.

Don’t forget the romance. If you’ve been with your partner for some time, cast your mind back to the giddy days when you were getting to know each other. When every look, every slight touch was electric, and you went out of your way to do romantic things together. Now think about your life today, and how you can add some romance or spice things up. Whether it’s a date night, with dinner somewhere special, followed by dancing in your lounge or cuddling on your couch; sending your partner flowers or other love tokens; leaving little notes for them to find; or just surprising them with a good old fashion, toe curling pash (sigh ❤). Put in the effort – it’s well worth it, as it will make you both feel special and loved.

Keep a sense of humour. Inevitably things will go pear-shaped. Your back will spasm, your hips fail you, someone falls asleep, or the children/cat/dog make an appearance. All you can do is roll with it. It’s no one’s fault, so laughing about it, and moving on is your best option.

It’s not all about penetration. Cuddling, touching, oral sex, lying skin-to-skin, masturbation, staying in bed sharing your deepest hopes/dreams/thoughts are also so important when it comes to intimacy with your partner. While sex is great, these things add a layer of richness and depth of feeling that sex alone cannot give. So don’t forget to do the things that strengthen these intimate bonds with your partner.

And have fun 😉.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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22/Apr/2021

13 strategies to get you through

Living with a chronic musculoskeletal condition sucks. It may only suck occasionally, or it may suck a lot of the time. But there’s no denying that living with pain, fatigue and uncertainty isn’t a fun day at the beach.

In our 2020 national survey, we asked people how their condition affected all aspects of their life. One thing that stood out dramatically was that of the more than 3,400 who took part, 52% said their condition affected their ability to enjoy life in general.

That’s enjoying life in general – not enjoying big life events or travel – but life in general. And that’s disturbing and very, very sad.

Unfortunately there are no quick fixes for improving quality of life, or the enjoyment you get out of your day-to-day reality. Living with a musculoskeletal condition means that life isn’t always predictable. You can be going through a period of stability then suddenly – bam – you wake up feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck. Or your emotions or mental health suddenly take a downward turn. Living with a chronic condition, or multiple conditions, is a tricky, complicated balancing act.

But there are some things you can do, if you feel you need something to help you get on top of the ‘blahs’ and hopefully start to feel more happy, optimistic and fulfilled. They’re the tried and true ones I use when life starts to feel a bit grey.

  1. Get on top of your condition and pain management (as much as possible)
    If your condition is affecting your ability to enjoy life in general, is it because it’s not well managed or you’re in constant pain? If so, it’s time to talk with your healthcare team about how you can get on top of this. Complete pain relief may not be an option for all people, but getting your pain to a level that you can cope with, and so it’s not severely impacting your ability to enjoy life is doable. It may take some time and effort, but it can be done. Talk with your doctor and healthcare team to develop a plan to get your condition and symptoms under control. And read our A-Z guide to managing pain for more info.
  2. Get some sleep
    One of the biggest factors that affects our mood and mental health is lack of sleep. It’s much more difficult to cope with every day stresses, family life, work/study, as well as managing your health, if you’re exhausted. After dealing with poor quality sleep for some months, I recently took time off work to try and get myself into a better sleep routine. I exercised, went to bed at a reasonable time, ensured I got up at the same time every day, and limited caffeine, alcohol and screen time for several hours before I went to bed. My sleep quality – while still not perfect – is much better. Taking time away from your responsibilities may not be an option for everyone, but there are other strategies you can try to improve your sleep quality. Find out more.
  3. Make time for you
    Ever had those days/weeks when you feel like your life is consumed by everyone else’s problems and issues, and yours keep getting pushed further and further back? If that’s the case – it’s time to take some time back for you. However much time you can carve out of your day, just do it. You deserve and need it. Take the time to rest/meditate/read/go for a walk/just breathe. You’ll feel much better for it and be more equipped to help others afterwards.
    “Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” – Eleanor Brown
  4. Connect with your peeps
    It’s an easy trap to fall into. When you feel crappy, and everything seems too hard, staying at home in your safe and cosy cocoon feels like all you can bear to do. You don’t want to share your miserable mood, or let others see how you’re really feeling. But this can become a vicious cycle, and before you know it, you lose touch with family and friends, or miss out on fun times, and important events. If you don’t feel up to going out, call your people. Chat, catch up with each other over the phone or video. Share how you’re feeling (it’s up to you how much detail you go into), and just enjoy the connection. When you’re able to, even if it’s an effort, try to get out and see your peeps. They care about you, and you’ll feel happier for making the effort.
    “It’s not what we have in our life, but who we have in our life that counts.” – J.M. Laurence 
  5. Schedule time to relax
    It may seem crazy, but in this busy world we live in, if you don’t schedule time for relaxation, it often doesn’t happen. I’m not talking about the near comatose slouching on the couch at the end of the day, type of relaxing. But the things that actually refresh body, mind and spirit, and ease your stress and muscle tension. This includes meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, massage, a warm shower or bath, going for a walk or listening to music. So think about the things that relax and refresh you, and make time to do those things each week.
  6. Focus on self-care
    Take time to evaluate your self-care plan. Is it covering all aspects of your life, health and wellbeing? Not only your physical health, but mental and emotional health as well? Or do you need to create a self-care plan? For help to get you started, read our recent 7 pillars of self-care article. It has lots of info to help you understand self-care, as well as resources to help you create a self-care plan.
  7. Enjoy the small things
    One of the silver linings of the COVID lockdowns for me was that we were forced to live smaller, and as a result really take note and appreciate the little things in our lives. When we could only walk in our local area, I noticed amazing gardens and parks that I hadn’t known existed. It gave me the chance to enjoy the quiet as we worked on a jigsaw or crossword puzzle together. I read, I learned some yoga, I rode my bike. I talked with my young niece and nephew over the phone, and listened as they excitedly told me about their daily adventures. I enjoyed the breeze on my face when I went for a walk, the glow of the full moon, the smell in the air after a rainstorm. Taking a moment to enjoy, and be thankful for these little things, lifted my mood and made me smile. It’s simple, but so powerful. And perfectly segues into my next tip…
  8. Be grateful
    Sometimes we get so bogged down in what’s going on in our life – our problems and issues, family dramas, and the million things that need to be done at home and work – that we can’t see all the good things in our lives. The Resilience Project has a range of activities and resources exploring how we can feel grateful by “paying attention to the things that we have right now, and not worrying about what we don’t have”. Visit their website to find out more about being grateful in your everyday life.
  9. Write a wish list of the places you want to go
    I love to explore. Whether it’s overseas, interstate or my local area. And I subscribe to countless newsletters and alerts that provide info about interesting walks, galleries and exhibitions, cafes and restaurants, and upcoming markets and festivals. I add these to a burgeoning list on my phone, complete with links. This gives me a never-ending list of adventures. And nothing pulls me out of the doldrums like an adventure! Depending on what I’m doing, I do need to take into account my condition, how I feel that day etc. But a little planning, sharing the driving with others, and just being leisurely and not rushing, means that I get to enjoy some amazing things. Just seeing a list of opportunities is exciting, so I’d recommend giving it a go.
    “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” ― Dr. Seuss
  10. Be mindful
    How many times have you eaten dinner, but can’t really remember what it tasted like because you were watching TV? Or gone for a walk but can’t remember much of what you saw, felt or experienced? If this sounds familiar, try some mindfulness. You may have heard of mindfulness meditation, but you can also be mindful when you do other activities, like eating or walking. It simply means that you focus your attention on the moment and the activity, without being distracted. So when you’re eating, really take time to focus on the textures, smells and flavours, and how the food makes you feel. Or when you’re walking, how does the ground feel under your feet, the sun on your face, the wind in your hair? Do you hear birds in the trees, are there dogs running in the park? Be aware and enjoy it all.
  11. Try something new
    From time to time we can get stuck in the rut of everyday life/work/study/home activities. And while having a daily routine is an important strategy for living with a chronic condition, sometimes we just need a little something extra, something new and exciting to get us out of the doldrums. What have you always wanted to do? What’s on your bucket list? Learning a language? Visiting a special place? Writing a book? There are lots of low and no cost online courses that can teach a range of skills from juggling, cooking, origami, geology, playing the guitar, speaking Klingon. And while we can’t travel to a lot of places – especially overseas at the moment – you can still travel virtually and whet your appetite for when the borders reopen. The point is, adding something new and interesting to your everyday life makes you feel more fulfilled and optimistic. Just head to your favourite search engine, and start searching!
    “Don’t be afraid to try new things. They aren’t all going to work, but when you find the one that does, you’re going to be so proud of yourself for trying.” – Anonymous
  12. Exercise
    I can’t get through an article without talking about exercise 😊. It’s just so important, and can improve not only your physical health, but your mental and emotional wellbeing. I find it’s the perfect thing to do whenever I’m feeling at my lowest. It can be hard to get up and go, but even if it’s a short walk outside, or 10 minutes of stretching exercises, or some yoga – just making the effort and getting the blood moving, immediately lifts my mood, and distracts from my symptoms. That’s because when you exercise your body releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine into your bloodstream. They’re sometimes called ‘feel-good’ chemicals because they boost your mood and make you feel good. They also interact with receptors in your brain and ‘turn down the volume’ on your pain system. So grab your walking shoes, or exercise mat, and let the endorphins flow!
  13. Seek help
    If you feel like your condition is significantly affecting your ability to enjoy life, and these basic strategies aren’t enough to change that, talk with your doctor. Be honest and open, and explain how you’re feeling. You may need to talk with a counsellor or psychologist so that you can explore some strategies, tailored specifically to you, to help you get through this rough patch.
    “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Vivian Greene

Crisis support

If this article has raised some issues with you or you feel like you need help during this stressful time, there’s help available. Contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention. https://www.lifeline.org.au/about-lifeline/contact-us

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore


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22/Apr/2021

I know, I know…we talk about self-care A LOT. But understanding and practising self-care is such an important tool for living your best life and getting the best health outcomes when you have a chronic condition. That’s why we talk about it so much.

Based on the findings of our 2020 national consumer survey, we know people with musculoskeletal conditions are practising self-care by exercising, eating healthfully, appropriately using medications, working with their healthcare team, using mind-body techniques and seeking peer support.

But they also told us they needed support to do this.

So what is self-care?

Self-care is vital and covers all aspects of our health and wellbeing. Things like exercise, visiting your specialist, taking your medication, mindfulness, learning about your condition/s, talking with a friend and even relaxing in a bubble bath; are all part of self-care

To understand the breadth of self-care, and how you can incorporate it into your life in a meaningful way, the International Self-Care Foundation (ISF) has developed a framework for self-care around seven ‘pillars’ or ‘domains’.

Let’s explore each of these.

Pillar 1. Knowledge and health literacy
Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power – so understanding your body, how it works, how it’s affected by your musculoskeletal condition/s, as well as any other health condition you have – gives you the ability to make informed decisions and play an active role in the management of your healthcare.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care defines health literacy as the way we “understand information about health and health care, and how we apply that information to our lives, use it to make decisions and act on it”.

Together, health literacy and knowledge give us the tools we need to be empowered when it comes to our healthcare. By understanding our body and our health, we can discuss our options with our health professionals, we can critically evaluate information from a range of sources, make adjustments to our lifestyle and behaviours, understand risk factors and the appropriate use of treatments and tests.

In fact, research shows that people who have high levels of knowledge and health literacy have much better health outcomes.

If you want to know more about your health and musculoskeletal condition/s, or you need help to improve your health literacy, there are lots of people who can help you.

Talk with your doctor and other members of your healthcare team. Contact the MSK Help Line and speak with our nurses. Visit authoritative websites (like ours).

And don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s how we all learn.

Pillar 2. Mental wellbeing, self-awareness and agency
Incorporating things you enjoy and that make you feel good into your daily/weekly routine – such as mindfulness, exercise, alone time, relaxation, massage, and staying connected with family and friends – is a simple thing you can do to look after your mental wellbeing and increase your resilience.

Self-awareness involves taking the knowledge you have about your condition and health in general, and applying it to your specific circumstances. For example, if you’re having problems sleeping, and you know exercise can help with that, ensure you’re getting enough exercise each day. Or if you’re carrying more weight than you’d like, and this is causing increased knee pain, as well as issues with your self-esteem, talk with your doctor about safe ways you can lose weight. Or if you have rheumatoid arthritis and a family history of osteoporosis, talk with your doctor about how you can look after your bone health.

Agency is the ability and intention to act on your knowledge and self-awareness.

Pillar 3. Physical activity
OK, so this one’s fairly self-explanatory since we talk about the importance of exercise and being physically active all the time 😊.  Regular exercise helps us manage our musculoskeletal condition/s, pain, sleep, mood, weight, bone health – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It keeps us moving, improves our posture and balance, helps us stay connected and helps prevent (or manage) other health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Pillar 4. Healthy eating
This one’s also easy to understand, as along with exercise, healthy eating plays a vital role in our overall health and wellbeing.

Being overweight or obese increases the load on joints, causing increased pain and joint damage, especially on weight-bearing joints like hips, knees, ankles and feet. The amount of overall fat you carry can contribute to low but persistent levels of inflammation across your entire body, including the joints affected by your musculoskeletal condition, increasing the inflammation in these already painful, inflamed joints.

Being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, poor sleep and depression.

Being underweight also causes health issues. It can affect your immune system (meaning you’re more at risk of getting sick or an infection) and you may feel more tired than usual. Feeling tired and run down will affect your ability to be active, and do the things you want to do.

If you need help to eat more healthfully or manage your weight, talk with your doctor or dietitian.

Pillar 5. Risk avoidance or mitigation
Taking responsibility for our actions and doing all we can to reduce or avoid actions and behaviours that increase our risk of injury or death, is good for our health.

This includes things such as driving carefully and wearing a seatbelt, drinking alcohol in moderation, wearing a helmet when riding a bike, getting your vaccinations, protecting yourself from the sun, quitting smoking and practising safe sex.

It also includes seeing your doctor and healthcare team regularly so that you can stay on top of any changes to your musculoskeletal condition/s.

Pillar 6. Good hygiene
Many people living with a musculoskeletal condition/s are more susceptible to bugs, germs and other nasties in the environment than other people. Their immune system is weakened due to their health condition and/or the medications they’re required to take. Practising good hygiene is a simple thing you can do to reduce the risk of getting sick or developing infections.

Good hygiene includes things such as regular and thorough hand washing, coughing/sneezing into your elbow, appropriate and safe preparation and storage of food, cleaning your teeth regularly, staying home when sick, and having a clean home/work environment.

They all help us maintain good health and avoid spreading disease.

Pillar 7. Rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines

ISF calls these self-care products and services the ‘tools’ of self‐care, as they support health awareness and healthy practices.

These tools include medications (both prescription and over-the-counter), complementary therapies, monitoring equipment (e.g. blood pressure and blood glucose machines), aids and equipment (e.g. TENS machine, heat or cold pack, walking stick), wellness services (e.g. exercise classes, weight loss groups), and health services (e.g. smoking cessation programmes, physiotherapy, massage therapy).

ISF also states that the use of these tools should be ‘rational and responsible’. That means only using products and services proven to be safe and effective.

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So that’s it – the seven pillars of self-care. They provide a convenient, easy-to-understand description of self-care practises we can use to manage our health and musculoskeletal conditions.

“An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.” – Unknown

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore


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01/Apr/2021

Living with one chronic condition can be tough; however many people live with more than one chronic condition – and that can be really challenging.

In our report: Making the invisible visible, we revealed that:

  • 57% of the people who responded to our survey had 2 or more musculoskeletal conditions, and
  • 80% had other health conditions such as high blood pressure, mental health conditions, gastrointestinal conditions, respiratory conditions and diabetes.

So what does it mean to live with more than one chronic health condition?

It means that most of the time you have many balls in the air, and you quickly become an expert at juggling.

Your time, energy, and focus are on so many different things – how you’re feeling that day, your healthcare appointments, medications, exercise programs, diet, managing your mental health and emotions, dealing with work/study, managing family and social commitments, getting enough sleep, practising self-care. The list goes on and on.

This can be challenging – and exhausting. But there are some simple things you can do to prevent dropping any balls so you can get on with living your best life.

Juggling 101

Know your conditions. It’s important to be as knowledgeable as you can about all of your conditions. What causes them to flare? What things keep them in check or under control? What things can you do to manage them to the best of your ability? To find out more:

    • Talk with your doctor if there’s something you don’t understand about your conditions or health in general.
    • Call the MSK Help Line – 1800 263 265 or email helpine@msk.org.au – and speak with our nurses about your musculoskeletal condition/s.
    • Search the Australian Government Healthdirect website for information and links to websites for information on other health conditions.

Understand how your conditions may impact each other. Often the symptoms of, or treatments for, one condition can aggravate another. For example, if you’re not sleeping well because of back pain, your anxiety may become worse, as you feel tired and less able to cope with day-to-day stresses. Or the medication you take for one condition may affect your ability to focus or concentrate, which may add to the brain fog you already experience due to fibromyalgia.

By understanding how one condition may affect another, you can act quickly and get on top of any problems as soon as possible. Talk with your doctor as soon as you notice any worsening of symptoms or any new health issues.

Know the ins and out of each of your treatment plans, and follow them. That means knowing your medications (including the active ingredients and potential side effects), your exercise program, pain management strategies, dietary requirements, and the self-care practices that ensure your conditions are well-managed. Some of these things will overlap – exercise is important for musculoskeletal health, and for heart health, diabetes, mental health conditions, etc. But others may require more planning – for example, your medications may need to be taken at different times to avoid interactions. That’s why you should know as much about your own health as you can, and take an active role in managing it.

Work with your healthcare team. They’re your support team and provide information, support, treatment, and encouragement to help you keep functioning. And there are some easy things you can do to get the most out of your time with them:

  • Be prepared for your appointments. Take a list of any questions you have, and put them in order of most important to least, just in case you run out of time.
  • Take your condition/symptom tracker to discuss any issues you have around things like sleep, exercise, diet, medications, etc. If you don’t have a tracker, write down the things you’ve been doing, any changes you’ve noticed, before you go to your appointment.
  • Ask for a longer appointment if you need more time to discuss any issues or concerns.
  • Talk with your doctor about getting a Chronic Disease Management Plan and/or a Mental Health Care Plan (if you haven’t already done so).

Embrace alerts and routine. When you’re trying to manage multiple health conditions, and your other commitments, it’s easy to drop the ball if you’re not super-focused. Add a drop of brain fog and a pinch of fatigue, and things can go sideways very quickly. That’s when alarms/alerts, and routines come in.

  • Set an alarm or alert on your phone, watch or clock to remind you when it’s time to take your medications, go to appointments, take an exercise/stretch/meditation break.
  • Develop a routine around some of your daily activities. For example the timing of your exercise program – e.g. always before breakfast, or always after you’ve showered and loosened up. Or sleep – always going to bed at 10pm and getting up at 6.30am every day. Or looking after your mental health – e.g. practising guided imagery/mindfulness/visualisation 1 hour before going to bed.

By having a routine it becomes second nature and you’re less likely to forget to do these things or have other activities intrude on this time.

Ask for help when you need it. From your family, friends, healthcare team, or support organisations like Musculoskeletal Australia. None of us is invincible, and we all need help from time to time.

Take care of your mental health. Whether you have a mental health condition or not, we need to be aware of how we’re feeling. Trying to juggle multiple health conditions is stressful, and we can have days when we’re depressed, angry, anxious, sad or overwhelmed. Fortunately, there’s a lot of information and resources to help you manage. To start, check out Head to Health, Beyond Blue, and Smiling Mind. And if you think you need professional support, talk with your doctor about accessing a Mental Health Care Plan.

Seek help if you’re dealing with financial stress. Living with a chronic condition can be expensive. Medications, healthcare appointments, time off work (or not being able to work), exercise classes, complementary therapies, and aids and equipment, are costly on top of everyday expenses. When you multiply that by the number of conditions someone has, it can quickly strain the budget. If you’re worried about your finances, read our blog ‘Money, money’ money’ for tips and strategies to help.

Acknowledge how well you’re doing. Research has shown that people with multiple chronic conditions are resilient and are experts at practising self-care and becoming advocates for their own health. So give yourself a pat on the back. You’re working really hard. You should feel proud of how much you’re accomplishing – even on the days when getting out of bed was an effort. You’re doing it. Be proud.

Juggling is hard – but you’ve got this

Keeping all your balls in the air and providing them with time, energy and focus can be difficult. Sometimes it feels like the balls’ weight has changed and suddenly your evenly matched tennis balls have become a tennis ball, two bowling balls, three flaming batons, and a very angry cat.

Because in our everyday lives, the importance of our daily tasks – work commitments, family duties, social engagements – change all the time. And how you’re feeling, the symptoms you’re experiencing, how much pain you’re in, or how tired you are – that constantly changes too.

But unlike actual performance juggling, you can decide to put some things down. You can set them aside and focus on the activities or tasks that require the most focus and energy.

You’ll get back to the others when life returns to ‘normal’. But until then, you, the master juggler, will do the best you can with the circumstances and resources you have. You’ve got this.

You need not feel guilty about not being able to keep your life perfectly balanced. Juggling everything is too difficult. All you really need to do is catch it before it hits the floor. Carol Bartz

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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01/Apr/2021

Not much has changed since ABBA sang in 1976 “All the things I could do, if I had a little money.” Money – or the lack of it – has been giving people headaches and causing stress since we first started using it.

In our report Making the invisible visible, 65% of respondents reported that they’d experienced financial stress due to having a musculoskeletal condition. The most common causes for this were:

  • cost of specialist appointments: 50%
  • cost of allied health appointments: 46%
  • cost of medications: 39%
  • cost of surgery: 19%.

Living with a musculoskeletal condition – or multiple conditionscan be expensive. Medications, healthcare appointments, time off work (or not being able to work), exercise classes, complementary therapies, and aids and equipment, are costly on top of everyday expenses.

When you add a global pandemic into the mix, and the problems it has caused in terms of work for so many people, financial stress is almost inevitable.

Wow, that’s grim. But fortunately, there are things you can do if you’re in this situation. And it starts now.

Acknowledge the situation. This is the crucial first step. As much as we’d like to bury our head in the sand when we feel anxious or worried about anything, it won’t solve the problem. We need to look it in the eye, acknowledge it exists and start to deal with it – one step at a time.

Create a budget. This may sound daunting, but you need to know where your money is going. You need to be able to track what money is coming in, and what you’re spending it on. MoneySmart is an Australian Government website that has lots of tools and resources to help you manage your money. They have a section on budgeting to help you create a budget that works for you and your circumstances.

By understanding where your money’s going, you can start to see where you can make some savings or cut some costs. It will also put you in a better position when/if it comes time to talk with your bank, utility companies etc.

Know your rights. When you’re struggling and stressed it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But there are laws to help protect you if you’re suffering from financial hardship. The National Debt Helpline has information to help you understand your rights and protections.

Seek help. If you’re finding it challenging to create a budget, or find a way out of your financial problems, contact the National Debt Helpline and talk with a financial counsellor. They’re free, confidential, and independent. You can use the live chat function on their website or you can call them on 1800 007 007 weekdays 9.30am-4.30pm. They also have a huge range of other resources to help you if you’re struggling with debt or getting your finances under control.

Talk to your bank. If you’re having difficulties paying your mortgage, personal loans or credit card repayments, talk with your lender about your options, such as making smaller repayments over a longer period or pausing repayments.

The Australian Banking Association has some useful resources on their website, including information about your rights and what your bank can do to help you.

Talk to your utility companies. If you can’t afford to pay your water, gas, electricity and phone bills, contact your supplier. But first, check out this information from the National Debt Helpline about how to do this.

Be wary of buy now, pay later schemes, payday loans, and consumer leases. If you’re under financial stress, these options may seem like a convenient way to pay for things you need. However, they’re also an easy way to get into even more debt. Read this information from MoneySmart to find out more about the potential problems with payday loans, consumer leases, and buy now pay later schemes.

Talk with your doctor about GP management plans. Living with a chronic condition (or multiple conditions) can cost a lot of money. Discuss accessing a GP Management Plan and Team Care Arrangement with your doctor so that you can get coordinated care to manage your health condition. You may also be eligible for Medicare rebates for certain allied health services. You can find out more on the Department of Health website.

Talk with your doctor and pharmacist about safety nets. They exist to help lower the out of pocket medical costs for people who, due to their health condition/s, spend a lot of money on:

Your doctor and pharmacist can give you more information about these safety nets. You can also find out more by clicking on the links above.

Find out about government allowances and benefits. The Australian Government provides a wide range of allowances and benefits you may be eligible for including:

The Australian Government’s Services Australia website provides a lot of information about these payments (and others), including information about eligibility criteria.

You can also talk with our nurses on the MSK Help Line if you’re having trouble navigating your way through these social services schemes. Contact them on 1800 263 265 weekdays or email helpline@msk.org.au.

Find out about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS helps people under the age of 65 with permanent and significant disability get care and supports. It pays for reasonable and necessary supports that a person needs to live and enjoy their life. The NDIS also provides information and connections to local services to people who aren’t eligible for funding. Find out more about the NDIS.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re in debt or dealing with financial hardship, it can seem like there’s no way out. But there are a lot of organisations and services available to help you. This article has just scraped the surface of them. There are more for you to explore in the links below.

If you need help with debt, or if you just want to learn how to manage your money better, I would urge you to look at MoneySmart, National Debt Help Line and The Salvos. They really provide excellent, easy to understand resources on a wide range of issues relating to money.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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18/Mar/2021

Dealing with pain, isolation and loneliness

When you’re unwell or in pain – both physical and emotional – it’s natural to want to shut out the world and retreat to the cosy safety of your ‘cocoon’.

For me it’s either my bed or the couch, soft, warm clothes, the doona if it’s cold and something mindless on the TV. I shut everything out and stay in my cocoon until I’m feeling ready to face the world again.

This is my safe place, where I can minimise the risk that anything will exacerbate my pain or make me feel worse – because if I can’t control the pain, at least I can control my environment.

I’m not alone in this behaviour. It’s a common thing to do, especially when you live with a chronic condition and pain.

In our recent report: Making the invisible visible: Australians share the impact of musculoskeletal conditions on their lives people revealed that:

  • they tended to keep to themselves and not contact friends and family when they’re feeling unwell – 64%
  • their ability to socialise with friends and family was impacted by their condition – 66%
  • their condition impacted their ability to participate in family events and activities – 35%
  • they couldn’t make firm commitments to socialise – 45%
  • they often needed to cancel plans due to their condition – 39%.

These findings highlight that living with the unpredictability of a musculoskeletal condition can significantly affect the social fabric of people’s lives.

Did you know: social isolation can have negative effects on our health? Research has shown that people who become isolated and experience loneliness are at increased risk of developing depression, having poor sleep, decreased immune function, poor cardiovascular health and impaired executive function.

So while retreating to your cocoon can be a soothing and healing thing to do for short periods of time, it can potentially be harmful if you do it for too long and become cut off and isolated.

Why do we become isolated?

Pain and fatigue – these are the two big ones. When you can barely drag yourself out of bed, and the just thought of showering sounds exhausting, getting dressed and catching up with people can seem like an insurmountable challenge.

Mental and emotional health – when you’re not feeling like your usual self and feel sad, depressed, anxious or down, it can affect your ability or willingness to make the effort to be social.

Losing touch or connection with friends and family – we lose touch with people for a variety of reasons. But sadly sometimes we lose touch with people because we have to cancel or postpone plans when we’re not feeling well. And because of the unpredictable nature of musculoskeletal conditions this can often happen at the last minute. If someone doesn’t know what it’s like to live with a chronic condition they may find this frustrating and difficult to understand. As one person stated in our survey: “the worst part is they are invisible conditions so people can’t understand unless they’ve had it.”

COVID-19 hasn’t helped – physical distancing, lockdowns, closed borders and feeling vulnerable at the thought of being exposed to a new virus, especially if you already have a weakened immune system, has made many of us feel more isolated.

Emerging from the cocoon

But we’re social creatures and we need the interaction with others, even when we’re in pain. So we need to ensure that we emerge from our safe, secure cocoons before isolation becomes a problem. Here are some tips to help.

Know yourself – we all live with different musculoskeletal conditions and health conditions. And they affect us physically, mentally and emotionally in differing ways. That means you’re the best person to judge how much time alone is good for you, and how much is detrimental. So know your limits.

Be honest with your important peeps – most people don’t know what it’s like to live with pain, or brain fog or energy-sapping fatigue. So be open and honest with your family and close friends. Let them know why you sometimes need to cancel plans, or why you sometimes need time alone to recharge. Don’t downplay how you’re feeling or make excuses. Just be honest.

Do things on your terms – if you’re feeling fragile and your cocoon (aka couch) is beckoning, think about how you can still interact with your people, but on your terms.

  • Invite them to your house – for a coffee and chat, or get some yummy food delivered and have a meal together. And don’t worry if your home is untidy. Your people are there to see you, not your space. Just enjoy the time together.
  • Call or have a video chat – you can do that from the comfort of your home. And COVID has taught us that as long as your top half is respectable, no one can see that you’re wearing flannelette pajama pants covered in rubber ducks.
  • Go to a venue or on an outing that suits your symptoms, pain levels and how you’re feeling. Go to the local café, watch the latest blockbuster at the cinema, go for a slow meander in the park and find a park bench to sit and chat. Whatever works best for you.

Acknowledge the important people in your life – set alerts on your phone or mark the dates in your diary. Contact them on the important days in their life – birthdays, anniversaries, starting a new job, Tuesdays. By setting up alerts, or having regular days and times to call, you’re less likely to miss the important life events we all hold dear, or fall out of touch. And it means that even if you have a foggy brain at times, you won’t miss those dates.

The power of pets – having a furry, feathered or scaled companion or two can help you feel less isolated, especially if you live on your own. Their presence gives you a reason to get out of bed every day as they’re depending on you for food, water, exercise and cuddles. And they’re just so cute and comforting. They also give you something in common with the other 61% of Australians who own a dog, cat, fish, bird, snake, hamster, lizard…that’s a lot of people you could potentially talk with – in person or online – about a shared love of animals.

Connect with others – we get a lot of our human connections and friendships through work, sporting clubs, book clubs, volunteering, parents groups etc. So try and keep these connections going, even if you’re not feeling 100%. Along with the connections of those nearest and dearest to us, they add a diverse, richness that makes life so interesting. And if you’re not involved in any groups or clubs, consider joining one. Now’s the perfect time as a lot of them are meeting online because of COVID. It gives you a chance to dip your toe in the water and see what the group is like, from the comfort of your home.

Look after yourself – Ok, you’ve made it out the door and you’ve been having a lovely time with friends. But you can feel your back starting to hurt. A lot. Uh-oh…what to do? Don’t ignore it. Whip out any of your trusty pain management techniques that you know work for you…such as stretching, walking, taking your medications, using a heat pack, distraction, moving. Whatever works for you (obviously this will depend on where you are and what facilities you have access to). The point is, by taking action you’ll hopefully nip the worst of the pain in the bud. It also means that you were able to enjoy time with friends – despite your pain.

Cherish your alone time – this may sound weird after pushing you out the door, but it’s important that we all take some time out when we need it. It gives you the time you need to relax, rest, recharge and reset.

“Humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others.” – Paul Bloom

However sometimes our condition can make socialising difficult and even painful. But if you’re prepared and you know yourself and your limits, you’ll be in a good position to enjoy the rich, wonderful connections that make life so satisfying.

“The struggle to leave the cocoon is what strengthens the butterfly’s wings so she can fly. I am about to become something beautiful.” Tricia Stirling.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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18/Mar/2021

And how to do it right

“Let’s begin by taking a smallish nap or two.” – Winnie the Pooh

Ever had one of those days when you wake up feeling like you need a nap??

Days like that make me want to be just like Winnie the Pooh. He seems to have it all worked out. Lots of honey, good friends and naps. I’m sure my spirit animal is a small, round-ish teddy bear who lives in the Hundred Acre Wood 😊.

However unlike Pooh Bear, many people with chronic pain crave a nap during the day because of poor sleep quality, not because they’re relaxed and full of honey. Chronic pain and sleep issues often go hand in hand.

In our recent report: Making the invisible visible: Australians share the impact of musculoskeletal conditions on their lives almost three-quarters (72%) of the people who took part in our survey said their sleep was affected by their condition. One person said: “I sleep very little due to pain, so find myself very tired during the day, which makes it harder to manage the pain.” 

So should we follow Pooh’s advice and “when all else fails, take a nap”?

It depends.

Sleeping is a complicated business. There’s so much we still don’t know about it.

However we do know that sleeping for too long or too often during the day can make getting a good night’s sleep even harder. And it can exacerbate your pain and make you feel stiff and sore.

But sometimes when you’re battling pain and fatigue a nap is exactly what you need. So what can you do? How do you find the right balance?

Tips for napping

First, listen to your body. You know it better than anyone else. So if you’re exhausted and know you won’t make it through the day, or the commute home without falling asleep, listen to your body and take a nap.

That being said sleep experts recommend that you:

Limit your nap to 20 minutes or less – aka a power nap. Any longer and your body enters a deeper state of sleep from which it’s harder to wake – and when you do wake, you’ll most likely feel groggy. By limiting your nap to less than 20 minutes you reduce this risk, and will wake up feeling rested.

Nap in the early afternoon. After lunch most of us tend to feel a bit fuzzy and unfocused, but when you combine that with fatigue or sleep problems, it can be tough to keep your eyes open. This is the perfect time to lay your head down for a short time. But avoid late afternoon napping as this will interfere with your overnight sleep.

Maintain good sleep habits. That means going to sleep at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning. This helps your body clock find a rhythm that works best for you. Read our information on sleep to find out more.

Only nap occasionally, not as a daily practice. Experts recommend that you only take a nap when you really need one so that it doesn’t start affecting your night time sleeping patterns. An exception is when you’re going through a flare or you’re unwell, as naps may be required more often to help you recover. But once you’re better, go back to your usual sleep routine.

Set an alarm. This is important because once you’ve nodded off you’ll need help to wake up, especially if you’re exhausted. But 20 minutes is the sweet spot for napping, and you need to stick to it. So set your alarm.

Find a comfy place to nap – preferably not your bed. If you’re in bed it’s far to easy to sleep longer than planned (trust me). Even with an alarm set, it’s too easy to hit snooze (it’s so comfy and you’re so tired). So nap on the couch, in a supportive armchair or at your desk if you have some supports to keep you comfortable and not put a crick in your neck or back, or aggravate your condition.

Turn off your TV, radio, computer etc. Put on an eye mask and/or earplugs if you need to block out light or noise. If your phone is your alarm, set it to airplane mode so you only get the alarm and nothing else. Because if you’re going to nap and enjoy the benefits, you need to block out all other distractions.

When you wake up, take some time to stretch or do some gentle exercises to help you loosen up. After being still for a while, your muscles and joints may have become stiff and painful. So take a little time to get yourself going again. And drink a glass of water to rehydrate.

Talk with your doctor if you find you need a nap every day. It may indicate that your musculoskeletal condition, medications or another health condition are interfering with your sleep or causing drowsiness. Together you can explore these possibilities so that you can come up with a plan to get it under control.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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18/Mar/2021

When this pandemic began a year ago we were all hopeful that it’d be over quickly. We were in a surreal and unprecedented situation, but we did the best we could and hoped for the best.

Twelve months down the track we’re all a little battle-scarred and weary.

We’ve had virus outbreaks, lockdowns, home-schooling, border closures, panic buying, changes to how/when/if we work and we’ve had financial stress. We’ve missed big and small life events, scaled our worlds down and we’re now getting ready to roll up our sleeves for the vaccine.

Pardon my language, but it’s been a pretty shit year. It’s been exhausting and stressful, and we’re tired. It’s no wonder many of us are feeling the impact on our mental health.

When you add painful, musculoskeletal condition/s into the mix, the effect is intensified.

In our recent report: Making the invisible visible: Australians share the impact of musculoskeletal conditions on their lives people revealed that having a musculoskeletal condition affected all aspects of their lives.

In regards to mental health, one person wrote: “it’s a constant battle with my body and mind. It’s hard to stay positive when pain has been a constant in your life for twenty years. I…have had to relinquish shift work and reduce to three working days a week as a result of health issues, mental health and ongoing pain”.

And another: “COVID-19 has severely affected a very active life and contributed to my downturn in mobility and therefore weight gain…My lonely times and feeling a lack of adequate social interaction [combined] with physical pain had a depressive effect. Am picking up now with support, activity and hope”.

People also shared that their condition affected their ability to:

  • be emotionally and mentally well – 50%
  • enjoy life in general – 52%.

With such large numbers reporting negative effects on mental health – because of their condition, and the crazy times we’re currently living through – we thought it was timely to revisit some of the many things we can do to look after our mental health.

So what can we do?

Lots! We can look after our mental health in so many ways. And the sooner we start to take care of our mental health the better it’ll be.

Note: These are general tips only. If you’re being treated for a mental health condition, continue to take any medication as prescribed, and keep in contact with your mental health specialist so that you continue to receive the support you need.

Establish a routine. Do you have a regular routine or are you just winging it from day to day? We’re creatures of habit and thrive on our schedules. They give us some control over our lives – especially when the world feels topsy-turvy. But it can be hard to develop and stick to a new routine. You really need to work at it, or you’ll find yourself staring at your phone and socials for hours, or going to bed later and later, not sleeping well, snacking more often, and basically forming some bad habits.

So whether it’s just for you, or your household, create a routine. Or update your existing routine; what worked at the beginning of the pandemic may not work anymore. Things have changed so much, and will continue to change, so we need to adapt.

Create a weekday routine that takes into account work, school and other commitments, and a weekend routine that involves your chores, as well as the fun stuff like social, leisure, sporting and family activities.

Don’t compare yourself with others. We all know people who appear to have it all worked out and seem to glide through life effortlessly. So if you’re comparing yourself to that ‘perfection’ – as you sit in your grungy jeans and t-shirt, with dirty laundry taking over the house, kids/partner/housemate driving you crazy and your dog weeing on the floor…STOP! Stop right now.

First – no one’s perfect. We all have our challenges, but some people are just better at concealing them. Second – comparing ourselves with others isn’t helpful. Most of us only share online the things that make us look good. We choose our best photos, we use filters and we manipulate our pics so we look amazing. Comparing yourself with others and their ‘perfect’ pics just makes us feel ‘meh’, so don’t do it. And third – don’t compare yourself with others in a way that invalidates what you’re feeling. Don’t feel guilty for being upset, sad or anxious. Our feelings are valid, they’re real and we need to acknowledge them.

Stay in touch. When you’re feeling down, anxious or depressed, it’s really easy to become isolated. You just want to stay in your safe cocoon. Interacting and opening up to others can be difficult when you’re struggling – but it’s really worth it. Call someone. You can choose whether to open up about your worries and fears, or you can choose to talk about things that make you smile. Shared memories, your kids/pets/hobbies, or something that’s happened in your day that made you feel good. Or venture out of the house and catch up for a coffee or a walk in the park. Just be sure to keep the communication channels open. And check out our blog on staying connected.

Get back to BACE-ics. BACE is a way to divide your daily activities into areas that encourage self-care. BACE stands for Body care (e.g. exercise, showering), Achievement (e.g. chores, reading), Connecting with others (e.g. family, pets), and Enjoyment (e.g. dancing, movies). As this ABC Everyday article explains a “routine that has activities across all BACE categories is good for us because it releases good chemicals in our brain which are key to staying mentally healthy. That’s because: exercise releases endorphins, achievement releases dopamine, connecting with people releases oxytocin and physical activity releases serotonin.” So get back to BACE-ics and focus on self-care.

Schedule time to face your worries and fears. We can’t always escape our worries about things like our health, work, finances, the future or COVID. We’re bombarded with news, social media and that annoying voice in our head at night when we just can’t sleep. So acknowledge that you’re worried and schedule a time to process this. (Just don’t do it too close to bed time or you’ll be tossing and turning all night.) Now look at these thoughts and feelings closely – really shine a light on what’s bothering you. Try to come up with possible solutions for dealing with them. Or you may need to accept that some things are outside of your control. But once you’ve taken the time to acknowledge them – put them away. Constantly focusing on our worries is bad for our mental health.

Talk with a professional. Half of the people who completed our survey said that their condition affected their mental and emotional health, and yet only 11% said that they had used the services of a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health coach or a counsellor. But help is available if you need it. The Australian Government is providing up to 20 Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions each calendar year. So if you’d like to talk with a professional about your mental health and how you’re feeling, talk with your doctor about how you can take advantage of the Better access to mental health care initiative.  And find out more about the different types of professionals that can help you.

You don’t have to be perfect. No one is. Just try for your best – and give yourself a break. Your best before all of this started is different to your best now. So do what you can in the circumstances you find yourself in and be kind.

Nurture your relationship. Whether you live with your partner/significant other, or they live elsewhere, it’s important to nurture your relationship with them. Everyday stresses have been compounded by the pandemic and its effect on our lives. This in turn can affect how we interact with the most important people in our lives. So schedule a regular date night or alone time with them. If you live apart use video chat, phone calls and good old-fashioned love letters (swoon). Just put in the time and effort your relationship deserves. Get dressed up. Don’t talk about any of the usual day-to-day worries. Talk about your favourite books/music/movies, your hopes and dreams, your fantasy holiday destination, reminisce about when you met, tell them things they don’t know about your childhood and growing up. Put some music on and dance in your lounge room. Have a moonlit picnic in the backyard. Or hold hands for a stroll around the local park. Whatever you do, make sure to take the time to cherish this relationship.

Watch the self-talk. We can be really horrible to ourselves, especially when we’re feeling down. “I’m fat”, “I’m hopeless”, “I’m a terrible dad/mum/partner”, “I’m a failure” – sound familiar? The critical things we say to ourselves really undermine our mood and our mental health. They can be so destructive. Some simple things you can do to negate these thoughts are:

  • Ask yourself if you’d talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself. The answer is likely no, so don’t talk to yourself this way. This is often easier said than done, and like any new habit it will require practise, but keep at it.
  • Ask yourself why you think you’re any of these things. And don’t be overly critical of yourself. Again ask yourself if you’d judge others with these labels, or so harshly.
  • Address these thoughts. If you think you’re overweight, and that makes you unhappy, what can you do to work on this? If you think you’re hopeless, why? It’s such a vague concept. What makes you think it? Is there something underlying it, or you’ve just had a bad day when a bunch of things haven’t worked out as you’d hoped.
  • Now give yourself a break. We’re all living, working and existing in a really trying and stressful time, so we need to be kind to ourselves and others.

Stay active. One of the best things you can do to boost your mood is regular exercise. When you exercise your body releases chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine into your bloodstream. They’re often called ‘feel-good’ chemicals because they boost your mood and make you feel good. They also interact with receptors in your brain and ‘turn down the volume’ on your pain system. Exercise has so many other wonderful benefits. That’s why we go on and on about it.

Be careful with alcohol and other drugs. Research by The Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) has found that since the pandemic began more Australians are drinking, and people are drinking more. While you might think alcohol makes you feel better, and more able to cope with your anxiety and stress, alcohol is actually a depressant and will affect your mood, ability to sleep and can make existing mental health issues worse. Find out more in this article from Beyond Blue. The ADF also has an online tool to help you change your habits if you’re finding yourself drinking too much.

We often focus so much on our physical health, that caring for our mental health tends to be pushed to the side. There are just too many other commitments competing for our time and energy. But we need to take care of our mental health so that we feel strong and resilient enough to get through these constantly changing and crazy times. This article has just skimmed the surface of the many things you can do to look after your mental health.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, sad, stressed, afraid or angry, decide to do something about it. You can feel better, you can take control. One step at a time.

Crisis support

If this article has raised some issues with you or you feel like you need help during this stressful time, there’s help available. Contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 for 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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18/Feb/2021

Did you know that the second person in the world to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (outside of a clinical trial) was William Shakespeare? The UK was the first to roll out the Pfizer vaccine, and 81 year old William was the second in line to get the jab.

Obviously the media (and people like me) couldn’t let that go by without a joke or two! So after the jab there was a chorus of “Is this a needle which I see before me?”, and “All’s well that ends well’, and the vaccines will lead to the “Taming of the Flu.” And really when it comes to it, it’s all “Much ado about nothing”.

OK, silliness over 😉.

Obviously you can’t open a paper, watch the news or look at social media and not know that the COVID-19 vaccines are coming to Australia very soon. In fact the first shipment of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine arrived earlier this week.

There’s a lot of confusion and concern out there, so we’ve answered some of the FAQs we’re being asked. We’ve also included links to other great resources to help you understand these new vaccines and what they mean for you and your family.

What are the two main vaccines?

In Australia the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has so far approved the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine.

There are other vaccines in the pipeline which may be available later in 2021. However this article will focus on the two main vaccines that the Australian Government will begin rolling out in the next month or so.

It’s important to note that these vaccines are for adults only at this stage, and that children and pregnant women were not part of the clinical trials. That means we don’t have the information to ensure the vaccines are completely safe for these populations at this stage. If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or planning a pregnancy, read the federal government’s decision making guide for more information and discuss your specific situation with your doctor.

How do they work?

We’ve all heard of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). It’s the genetic material that carries all the information (or genetic code) about how all living things look, develop and function.

However for many types of viruses – including influenza and coronaviruses – their genetic code is stored in their RNA (ribonucleic acid). It provides all the instructions for how the virus works.

Since very early on in the pandemic, scientists have had the genetic code for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). This has made an incredible difference to how quickly vaccines were able to be developed, trialled and ultimately administered.

By now we’re very familiar with the spiky, crown-like surface of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. These spike proteins are what allows it to penetrate and enter our cells, where it proceeds to take over. The virus then instructs our cells to become a virus making factory and before you know it, you’ve got COVID-19.

Researchers have used the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 that specifically relates to these spike proteins to develop their vaccines.

With the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine they used the genetic code to create their own synthetic RNA. This synthetic RNA contains information of the spike protein only, not the virus itself. So it can’t give you COVID-19. The RNA information is wrapped inside a fatty coating or envelope to protect it. This stops the body from breaking it down as soon as it’s been administered.

The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is known as a ‘viral vector vaccine’. It adds the genetic information about the spike proteins into another virus or a ‘vector’, in this case a genetically modified virus that normally causes the common cold in chimpanzees but not humans.

Despite the differences in the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines the body’s response is the same. Our cells again become factories – but this time they only make the spike protein (not the actual virus). The presence of this protein in our body triggers our immune system to mount an attack, which creates antibodies that are ready for if/when the real SARS-COV-2 comes knocking.

Are they safe?

The information we have to date is that these vaccines are safe to use. Our TGA has rigorous checks and balances in place before any drug (including vaccines) become available to the Australian population.

We also have the benefit of observing the rollout in large populations such as those in the UK and US, and monitoring for any unusual side effects or concerns.

Even after our vaccines are being rolled out across Australia, the TGA will continue to monitor for any issues.

How are they administered?

Like many of the vaccinations we get, the COVID-19 vaccinations will be injected into your upper arm. Both require two doses approximately 12 weeks apart. It’s important that you receive both doses.

After you’ve been vaccinated you’ll stay where you are for about 15 minutes to ensure you’re feeling ok afterwards.

What if I have a weak immune system?

If you have a medical condition, or take medications that mean you have a weakened immune system, you should still be able to receive these vaccinations. Remember the vaccines aren’t using live viruses.

The vaccines may help prevent you getting COVID-19, or prevent you getting a more serious case.

Read the latest information from the Australian Rheumatology Association: COVID-19 Vaccination for Rheumatology Patients (updated 30 March 2021). And talk with your doctor if you have any concerns at all.

Do I have to get vaccinated?

COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary. You choose whether to have one or not.

Can I choose which one I get?

Yo will not be able to choose which vaccine you receive.

Australia has secured fewer doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine (20 million doses), compared to AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine (3.8 million doses delivered from offshore facilities, and 50 million to be produced onshore this year).

The Australian Government, working with the state/territory governments, has a comprehensive strategy for vaccine rollout, prioritising those at greatest risk of being exposed to SARS-COV-2, or having worse outcomes if they develop COVID-19. This includes frontline health care workers, quarantine and border staff, aged and disability care workers, and aged and disability care residents.

From then on vaccinations will be a phased process, dealing with each group of vulnerable people. You can find out more about the vaccination rollout here.

You can also use the Australian Government’s Vaccine Eligibility Checker to find out which phase of the rollout you’re eligible for.

Do I have to pay for my vaccinations?

No, they’re free.

The Medicare Benefits Schedule has been amended to cover GP’s costs associated with the COVID vaccinations. That means you’ll be bulk billed for your consultation and vaccination, and won’t need to pay a thing.

Will it make me immune from catching or spreading COVID-19?

We’re not sure.

The vaccine trials were studying whether the vaccines stopped COVID-19 symptoms or reduced the severity of symptoms, not whether it protected people from getting infected with the virus. So the vaccines may not protect people from catching the virus if they’re exposed to it, but hopefully it will reduce the impact of symptoms.

We also don’t know if someone who gets vaccinated and later develops COVID-19 – but has no symptoms (asymptomatic) – is able to spread the virus to others. We just don’t have enough data.

That means that unfortunately the vaccinations won’t be a ‘get out of jail free’ card. We’ll still need to do all the things we’ve been doing for the last year – wash our hands with soap and water regularly, use hand sanitiser, practise physical distancing, wear a mask if required, and get tested and isolate if you feel sick.

What are the side effects?

Some people (not all) may feel a bit off colour for a day or two. They may experience flu-like symptoms (muscle and joint pain, headache, chills), and/or pain and redness where they received the injection. This is your immune system responding to the vaccine, not to the virus. The best thing to do is look after yourself, find a comfy position on the couch and watch your latest binge-worthy show.

Can I catch COVID-19 from these vaccines?

No, as the vaccines aren’t live.

Do I still need to get a flu vaccination this year?

Yes, if you normally get a flu shot each year, plan to do it again.

Influenza viruses are different to SARS-COV-2, and so the vaccinations are different.

However it’s important that you allow 14 days between a flu vaccination and either dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. Your doctor can give you more information and help you make sure your timing is right.

Will getting vaccinated make everything go back to ‘normal’?

If by normal you mean, pre-COVID craziness, it’s very unlikely. Apart from the potential for being asymptomatic and possibly spreading the virus even after vaccination, there’s still a lot of unknowns. Even though it feels like it’s all been going on forever, in the life of a new virus and the work needed to get it under control, we still have a ways to go. The only way to do that is to stop the spread of the virus.

When it comes to vaccination, the World Health Organization has stated that “a substantial proportion of a population would need to be vaccinated, lowering the overall amount of virus able to spread in the whole population”. What ‘substantial’ means exactly isn’t clear, and numbers from 50-80% of the population have been thrown around from a variety of sources.

But it’s not all cause for gloom. This time last year we were just entering the pandemic and there was so much we didn’t know. But science has made amazing strides, collaboration between researchers and big pharmaceutical companies has been unprecedented and we’ve learned so much about ourselves as we’ve led much smaller, intimate lives.

Yes, we’re still in the middle of this pandemic, but we’ve come so far and grown so much. And for that we should all be proud and continue moving forward – one step at a time.

Contact our Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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18/Feb/2021

Active ingredient prescribing is here!!

As of the first of February this year, you’ll need to be prepared to know (or at least recognise) the active ingredients in your medicines.

Doctors are now required to prescribe your medicine by its active ingredient/s. This will be what’s displayed on the packaging, rather than the brand name. So if you’re used to seeing Arava on your prescription and medicine, you’ll need to get used to seeing leflunomide instead. If you take Celebrex, you’ll need to become familiar with celecoxib – the active ingredient in Celebrex.

Your doctor can still add the brand name to your prescription, however it will follow the active ingredients.

What are active ingredients?

The active ingredients of medicines are the chemical compounds that have the intended medicinal effect on your body.

So if for example your doctor prescribes Nurofen Plus to relieve your pain and inflammation, the active ingredients are ibuprofen and codeine phosphate hemihydrate.

  • Ibuprofen – belongs to a group of medicines called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs provide temporary pain relief, specifically pain associated with inflammation.
  • Codeine phosphate hemihydrate – belongs to a group of medicines called analgesics which provide pain relief.

Your prescription will list these active ingredients, rather than the brand name Nurofen Plus (unless your doctor chooses to add it). It will also list the amount, or dose, of each active ingredient. For example: Ibuprofen 200mg and Codeine 12.8mg.

The active ingredients have always been listed on your medicines, however they were usually listed at the bottom of the packaging and were not very prominent. This is what’s currently changing.

Why has this happened?

Some of the reasons for this change are:

Safety #1 – many products contain the same active ingredient. If you only know the name brand, it’s very easy to take too much and accidentally overdose. A good example of an active ingredient that’s in lots of medicines is paracetamol. It’s in:

  • pain medicines – for joint pain, period pain, headache, back pain etc. Brand names include: Panadol, Panamax, Dymadon.
  • medicines for colds, flus and sinus problems. Brand names include: Codral, Lemsip.

These products may be purchased over-the-counter or be prescribed medicine. If you don’t realise they all contain paracetamol, you may use these medicines to deal with a headache, back pain and a cold, all in a short period of time. This is how accidental overdoses occur.

Safety #2 – if you see multiple doctors or specialists, knowing the active ingredients of the medicines prescribed by each of them means that together you can ensure you’re not being prescribed a medicine with the same active ingredient/s but with a different brand name.

Allergies – knowing the active ingredient in a medicine helps you spot something you may be allergic to before you take it.

Awareness – it’s important to understand and be fully informed about the medicines that you use.

Savings to you – knowing the active ingredient means you can discuss the potential use of generic medicines with your doctor or pharmacist. If it’s appropriate for you, using a generic medicine will save you money.

Savings to the health system – if more people use generic medicines, this will lead to savings for the health system, which will make the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme more sustainable.

What are generic medicines?

When a pharmaceutical company develops a brand new medicine, with a new active ingredient, it’s covered by a patent. This means they’re the only company that can make and sell this medicine. This allows the company to make back some of the money that went into the research and development associated with making new medicines.

However once the patent has expired, other pharmaceutical companies can make their own version of the original medicine. This is a generic medicine.

And because they haven’t had to put in the research and development to create the original medicine, they can usually sell it at a cheaper cost to consumers.

Learn more about generic medicines on the Healthdirect website.

Exceptions

Active ingredient prescribing will be required for all Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and Repatriation PBS (RPBS) medicines except:

  • hand written prescriptions
  • medicines with four or more active ingredients
  • paper-based medicine charts in the residential aged care sector
  • medicines that have been excluded to protect patient safety or where it’s impractical to prescribe the medicine by active ingredient.

Help with keeping track of your medicines

It can be hard keeping track of medicines at the best of times, even when you know their brand name. Having to know the active ingredients may seem a bit daunting.

But there are resources to help you.

  • Visit the NPS MedicineWise website. They have a free app called MedicineWise that keeps track of all of your medicines. They also have paper templates you can print out to help you keep track if an app’s not style.
    Creating a medicines list (whether you use an app or a paper list) is a great opportunity to list all of your medicine information in one place. Include your prescription medicines, as well as any over-the-counter medicines and supplements you take. Include the active ingredients for all of them as well as the dosages.
  • Talk with your doctor and pharmacist about these changes if you have any concerns. Also ask them how to pronounce the active ingredients; many of them are tongue twisters, so ask for help if you have any difficulty saying them.
  • Contact our MSK Help Line. Call or email the nurses on our Help Line if you want more information about active ingredient prescribing, your medications or your condition. We’re here to help.

Finally – let’s limber up with some tongue twisters

Medicines can be complicated things. And we’ve been used to the relatively easy brand names. However the active ingredients of many of our medicines are doozies! So it’s time to limber up your tongue, gargle some water and repeat after me:

  • “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers before popping his prednisolone.
  • “She sells sea shells by the seashore. The shells she sells are seashells, and not secukinumab I’m sure.”
  • “Betty bought her bisphosphonate and a bit of butter. But the butter Betty bought was bitter but the bisphosphonate was beneficial”. 😆

Contact our Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

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Musculoskeletal Australia (or MSK) is the consumer organisation working with, and advocating on behalf of, people with arthritis, osteoporosis, back pain, gout and over 150 other musculoskeletal conditions.

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