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Helpful tips for treating chronic pain

| Healthy You | Chronic Conditions

Older woman sitting on bed in possible pain

Don’t suffer in silence. Treatment for chronic pain is available.

Pain is more than “just” hurting. Pain affects your physical, emotional, social and spiritual health. It is estimated that about one in five Americans suffer from chronic pain. If unmanaged, the pain can become so debilitating that it interferes with daily life.

When symptoms flare, everything can feel more difficult—and it’s easy to become discouraged. Recent scientific evidence is helping doctors understand and treat chronic pain more effectively. There are many activities you can undertake on your own to help lessen the pain you are experiencing.

Causes of Chronic Pain

Pain is our body’s safety mechanism. It can let your body know something is wrong, whether it be an injury or illness. This signal allows you to modify behavior to avoid further damage. However, these pain signals can continue in some cases even after the original injury has recovered.  This leads to chronic pain, a situation that is no longer protective.

Chronic pain is pain that lasts six or more months after recovery. Some people may develop chronic pain without any apparent injury. This pain can occur anywhere in your body. It can range from mildly annoying to severe pain that interferes with your life and ability to function.

“Chronic pain is a vicious cycle. Pain can lead to decreased function and activity, which can lead to worsened pain. This significantly deteriorates one’s quality of life,” says Abbas Asgerally, MD, of PeaceHealth’s Interventional Pain Clinic in Vancouver, Washington. “Many people additionally report trouble sleeping, depression or excessive worrying. These additional stressors make the pain worse because stress can also affect the nervous system, making it more reactive. As a result, the pain signals reach the brain in an amplified way.”

The exact cause of chronic pain is still unknown. However, recent research has shown chronic pain develops because the glia (nervous system cells once thought to be mere supports for neurons) accelerate the pain system into an endless inflammatory loop that provokes the nerves into generating a perpetual pain alarm.

Think of the nervous system as the electrical system in your house with a haywire circuit causing a light to continually flicker on and off. You can call an electrician to fix the broken circuitry in your home. Unfortunately, for those who are suffering from chronic pain, doctors and scientists are still trying to figure out how to repair the nervous system.  

Chronic Pain Treatment

Despite not knowing how to fix the breakdown in the nervous system, treatments are available. Experts say breaking the pain cycle—a complex interplay of physical and psychological triggers—is the key to solving chronic pain. Proper treatment depends on the cause, location, intensity, duration and what makes the pain worse or better.

The science of chronic pain is improving rapidly. There are many powerful tools available to patients to take control of the pain in their lives. It does not always mean medication either; only one in four chronic pain patients find enduring relief from painkillers.

In addition to consulting your primary care doctor, you may also want to consider visiting a pain management clinic where you can get multidisciplinary treatment from a team of specialists.

“At a pain management clinic, we try to treat all aspects of the patient’s pain,” says Dr. Asgerally. “We will review your medical record, medications and imaging to create a targeted treatment plan. We try to embrace a multi-modal treatment model that includes medication therapy, physical therapy, psychological counseling, biofeedback training and education on combatting stressors that lead to more pain. Our primary treatment is interventions, like injection therapy, to help prevent dependence on medications.”

Tips for Managing Chronic Pain

If you suffer from chronic pain, here are some activities you can do to help manage your pain. Different strategies work better for some people than for others, and some may work fine for you on one day but not on another.

  • Avoid negative self-talk: Studies have shown that what we say to ourselves inside our heads can affect our perceptions of pain. A positive attitude is key.
  • Exercise: If you have chronic pain, you can still exercise. Being active is key to keeping you strong and healthy overall. Consult with your doctor about physical activities that are safe for you to try (e.g., swimming generally has less impact on your body and joints). Always start with low intensity and go slow. Keeping an activity journal can help you track your movement and related pains. Consistency is key.
  • Therapy: Consider physical or occupational therapy. Be sure to discuss the type of pain you are experiencing with your therapist.
  • Massage: While this is not a cure for most types of pain, it can help target myofascial or muscle pain. Make sure to tell your massage therapist about the pain you’re experiencing.
  • Stretching: If your doctor approves, try mild stretching exercises, yoga or tai chi.
  • Distractions: We have one-track minds. With practice, you can redirect your thoughts off your pain and on to other things. One way to do this is to focus on enjoyable activities that will take your mind off your pain. Ideas include jigsaw or word puzzles, board and card games with family or friends, a coloring book, painting by number, working with clay or play dough or listening to music.
  • Relaxation: Set aside time to relax on your daily schedule. Add more time when you are experiencing more pain. Techniques include:
    • Mindfulness meditation: Focus on the present moment calmly and without anxiety. You can find a variety of free pain management meditations online to try. Apps like Headspace also offer pain meditations as part of their services.
    • Deep-breathing exercises: Try this 60-second mindfulness breathing exercise to get started.
    • Visualization: Take an imaginary trip to a beautiful place. Use all your senses to experience the location as fully as possible. Feel the sun’s warmth. Hear the birds.
  • Support groups: Sharing with others about your experience and learning from theirs provides the reassurance you are not alone in the struggle.

Sources: American Chronic Pain Association, Mayo Clinic