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Pain Management

Carrie Ann Inaba on Managing the Pain of Autoimmune Conditions

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TV viewers know Carrie Ann Inaba as a judge on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and as a co-host on CBS’s “The Talk.” But fans may not know she has chronic pain from autoimmune diseases.

Inaba says there have been many days when she’s sat in her chair at “The Talk” or at the judges’ desk at “Dancing with the Stars” and been in immense pain. She credits her strong work ethic from her background as a dancer for helping her work through the pain.

“I will always show up fully, pain or no pain, not only for everyone else – because live television is truly a team sport – but also for myself because it’s what I do,” she says. “And I truly love what I do. The adrenaline of the live shows get me through the pain.”

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Relief

In 2013, Inaba was diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition that attacks the body’s ability to make saliva and tears, causing dry mouth and eyes. 

The diagnosis was actually a relief because she’d been struggling physically and emotionally the year prior. She had spinal stenosis pain, as well as narrow angle glaucoma, which required her to have holes poked in her eyeballs to release the pressure. Inaba had also moved, her father died, and her dog died in her arms.  Plus, she and her fiancé had broken up, and the family unit they had with his daughter was broken. 

“It was a very difficult time in my life. And yet, when I got the diagnosis, I felt relief,” said Inaba, who did her own research and was proactive in her self-care. “Finally, I understood what was going on with my body.”

The dancer and choreographer has other autoimmune conditions including lupus, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as markers for antiphospholipid syndrome, which can lead to blood clots. 

She doesn’t recall being told she had lupus but when she saw it in her medical chart after a colonoscopy, it made sense. Nine months earlier she’d had a bad reaction to the sun after having spent a half day on a boat in Hawaii. The next day, she couldn’t move her arm and doctors thought it was a stroke. In reality, it was inflammation from being in the sun. 

Inaba realized the sun was also the reason she’d been exhausted and in pain after walking her dogs. She says knowing her diagnoses helped her take better care of herself and help prevent a flare up. 

“I will say I was a bit angry in the beginning, not because I had lupus, but because I had spent many years suffering needlessly,” she said. “If I had just known to stay out of the sun, etc., it would have saved me a tremendous amount of suffering.”


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Managing pain

“Pain management is a way of life for me,” said Inaba, who experiences most of her pain in her right shoulder, the base of her skull, and her sinus cavity. The pain also shoots down into her right arm, her fingers often go numb, or she has pain under her shoulder blade. She also has feet pain and neuralgias, which she says are like painful facial muscle spasms.  

“Sometimes the pain in my neck and shoulder get so bad that it feels like a steel metal rope is digging in, and it’s attached to a 500 pound weight,” she says. “It’s a cold, heavy chronic pain that just throbs and aches deeply. And then there are sharp acute pains in the base of my skull and neck.”

Pain management is a significant part of her life, including spending hours every week working with healers and doctors. She does reiki, acupuncture, energy work, massage and yoga. She also does chiropractic craniosacral therapy on a bi-monthly basis.

She has a trainer and exercises when she can. Still, sometimes exercising hurts too much so she stops. But without exercise, she often has more pain.

“It’s a difficult balance because exercise does help relieve pain but it can also cause a flare-up,” she said, noting that a flare-up can set her back two weeks or more. 

Despite having severe pain, she tries to avoid surgery. Her regimen also includes using heating pads, ice, lidocaine cream prescribed by her doctor, Chinese herbs, and very high strengths of CBD balm on her neck, shoulders, ankles, and wrists. She also takes prescribed pain medications, uses cool light therapy, and meditates. 

Pandemic pain

From March to the end of December, she was in constant pain.

“Pandemic pain is a real thing,” she said. “Managing it during this time has been all-consuming.”

She struggled to get out of a bad pain cycle during quarantine. In addition to her usual pain, her body was tense and lockdowns meant she couldn’t see her trainer or go to yoga. 

Pre-pandemic, Inaba only needed to take prescribed pain medications once a month, usually at night. But during quarantine, she took the medications more often. Her doctor even gave her a low dose of a chemotherapy drug.


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Then in December, she tested positive for COVID-19. Her pain levels skyrocketed but she decided to focus solely on healing her pain.

She says the pain cycle “was stealing too many moments of my life,” so she changed doctors, started to see a new acupuncturist, changed her diet, and created new wellness routines, including nightly neck exercises and new supplements. 

These days, Inaba is slowly improving.  

“My pain levels have gone down tremendously,” she said. “And for that, I am beyond grateful. It took work, but the work was worth it.”

Talking the “Talk”

The talk show host is busier than ever. She wakes up daily at 6 a.m., tends to her five rescue pets, and has coffee and a protein shake with healthy greens. She does exercises in the shower and then gets to the show around 7:30 a.m. The next few hours are non-stop with meetings, topic discussions, rehearsals, and hair and makeup, followed by the live show.  

No matter how busy her days are, Inaba ends each day with a mantra or prayer of simple gratitude: “‘Thank you God for all that is. For all that was. And for all that will be.’”

Conversations

Inaba spends her afternoons working on Carrie Ann Conversations, her wellness and lifestyle website, which has a special focus on living with autoimmune syndromes. The passion project started out as a podcast and digital show. During the pandemic, she has leaned into the writing.

“The goal for me is always to help people who are struggling in any way because I have also struggled,” she said. “Through this website, which will grow into many things, I express my compassion for my fellow humans who are going through this magical, incredible, and sometimes challenging journey of life.”

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Gratitude

“Pain is a powerful teacher,” said Inaba, who wants to be a resource for people living with pain and autoimmune disorders. She recommends taking notes at each medical appointment since the appointments can be stressful and distracting. She also encourages communicating your pain to your doctors, and if a doctor isn’t helping you, to seek another opinion. 

“You can’t give up,” she said. “Life with or without pain is a gift and I’m grateful for it all.”

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