Jessica Schultz was 10 years old when she first experienced pain. Her wrists burned like they were on fire or being stabbed with needles. For Schultz, there is no cause. The pain never decreased, and to this day, for the past 12 years, she still experiences it continuously.
The burning sensation now affects her entire body, including her spine, head and toes. Contact to her skin from showering, bedsheets and even the wind causes excruciating pain. Unfortunately, 40 separate doctor consultations yielded no diagnosis.
“[Doctors] told me I was making it up for attention, it was all in my head, it wasn’t real,” Schultz said.
Due to the lack of explanation, Schultz used a wheelchair in fear of damaging her body throughout high school. This ensued in bullying from her peers. The invisible pain provoked accusations of crying wolf to raise pity points.
“They say what doesn’t kill us makes us who we are,” Schultz said.There was hope when Schultz was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s rigorous Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome program during her junior year of high school. Schultz learned how to re-walk here, yet it did not motivate her to walk functionally because it was painful. For four weeks, she worked with multiple therapists, including an occupational therapist, to reset her nervous system. The program did nothing to reduce the pain. Despite this, Schultz came out with a future career goal: occupational therapy.
Every day, her therapist gave her six reasons why she should become an occupational therapist. She was personable and good at helping others develop their strengths.
Two years later, Schultz enrolled at Elizabethtown College. She was still reluctant to walk until she attended a Pound fitness class, a cardio class that uses drumming to tone and work various muscles of the body.
“I pushed through the pain to be able to do it,” Schultz explained. This motivation challenged her to walk more functionally. Schultz is now the Pound instructor.
On Sunday evenings, when the clock chimes seven, an iPod is plugged into a speaker, the volume is cranked up and for the next 45 minutes, music blares down the halls of Leffler Chapel. Songs like “Talk Dirty” and “Rompe” echo off the olive-green walls of the M&M Mars room.
The music and drumming captivated Schultz’s attention versus other fitness classes. The “loud music jam session” incorporates her love of pop and punk. The drumming aspect of Pound resonates because her boyfriend is a drummer; rhythm also makes sense because of her experience in marching band.
Schultz’s knowledge in rhythm and fitness is evident in her workouts, as each movement targets a specific area of the body, and it is all to the beat of the song. The class squatted and lunged as they drummed, mirroring Schultz as she called out directions over the music. Her blonde ponytail swayed as she agilely did each motion. For each song, Schultz explained the exercises and gave modifications for different ability levels. Participants left with raised heart rates, beaded sweat and around 900 burned calories.
Every class, Schultz never has a grimace or agitation expressed on her face. Instead, there is a smile and a look of fierceness. This is her happy place where she combats her chronic pain. Working out also repairs her muscles that break down because her immune system attacks them.
After seeing a pain specialist, Schultz finally has a diagnosis; Dysautonomia – when the automatic nervous system does not work properly – is the general umbrella term.
“It took me almost 10 years to find someone who told me it’s not damaging my body, it’s just something wrong with your nervous system and it’s sending the wrong signals so I’m not hurting myself,” Schultz said.
While she still has not found a cure, she is trying several treatments including infusion therapy, where drugs are given through an IV.
Now an OT grad student and E-FIT coordinator at Etown, Schultz continues to enjoy life. One of the hardest challenges was mentally accepting that pain does not signify a problem, but she eventually overcame this.