How do you fight chronic pain?
The NHS defines chronic pain as pain that has persisted beyond three months after the usual period of healing.2 Say you have injured your hip after a fall, for example; it would normally take approximately 6-8 weeks to heal. If the pain sticks around for months beyond this, we would consider it chronic. Certain conditions like arthritis can also cause chronic pain.
Pain is your body's way of saying something is damaged and needs the opportunity to heal. However, for chronic pain sufferers, this alarm system continues even when the threat of further injury is gone.
Here, I've put together some tips I hope will help you manage chronic pain going forward.
- Keep routine
- Think positively
- Deal with flare-ups
- Take care of yourself
- Seek professional help
- Focus on good sleep
- Connect with others
- Amend your diet.
1. Keep routine
Sitting in the house all day, or remaining curled up in bed, may make pain worse by stiffening your muscles and joints. Plus, if you are doing either of these things, pain can easily become your focus, which can increase anxiety and discomfort.
If you can continue going to work, this is advisable. Again, this distracts a little from pain and brings a focus to the day. Research also shows higher rates of depression and anxiety amongst those who are unemployed, which is likely to make chronic pain worse.3 You can make an appointment to speak with your doctor if you have been off work for several weeks. It is also a good idea to talk to your employer about having a staggered return to work.
If you aren't working, bring your attention to things that you can accomplish at home. Something as simple as a regular morning routine, such as a shower followed by a good healthy breakfast, can be helpful.
Remember not to push yourself too far, though! This will only make the problem of chronic pain worse, so pace yourself and focus on small, achievable goals.
Accepting pain whilst still engaging in activity where possible has been found to reduce overall chronic pain levels.4 There are several reasons why exercise can help chronic pain:
- It focuses the mind on something else
- It helps sleep
- It can directly help pain by producing endorphins
- It reduces stress.
Also, not doing any exercise can cause weight gain, which will increase the strain on the joints. It can also make our bodies stiffer, which will, ultimately, lead to more pain. Muscles that aren't toned will feel more pain than those that are worked regularly.
Chronic pain sufferers should focus on low impact exercises rather than anything too intense. Some good options include walking, restorative yoga (or a one-on-one class where an instructor can tailor movements to suit your abilities) and stretching.
Check out these tips for exercising with chronic pain from our Get Active Advisor Louise:
- Try to maintain the same level of activity all the time, rather than doing more on good days and less on bad ones.
- Make sure the activity is something that you enjoy, and provides a little (but completely do-able) challenge.
- Do exercise little and often to make it part of your routine. for inspiration.
3. Think positively
We cannot will chronic pain away, this isn't what I am suggesting, but thinking positively can make it a little easier to cope with. For example, focus on what isn't hurting or the things that you can do during the course of a day. Celebrating small goals and accepting the things that aren't possible puts control back with you.
When you can't do something in particular, it's a good idea to come up with alternatives. If you know you'll struggle to have a walk with family around the country park, then perhaps walking along the street and back is a more achievable goal.
Try to make space for some relaxation each day. This is important as stress is known to make pain worse. Meditation, reading, a bath or even just stopping to sip a cup of tea in your garden can help!
Deep breathing might also be a good option to help reduce pain, tension and anxiety. We have a page on breathing tips to relieve stress but, for now, I've listed one example below. You can do this anywhere at any time; just get comfy and put any distractions like phones away!
If you would like more relaxation tips, take a look at our blog 'How to relax your mind to sleep'.
- Place one hand on your abdomen and inhale into the abdomen. Feel your hand rise and fall with each breath. Do this three times.
- Next, place two hands on the ribcage, fingertips touching and pointing towards the middle of your body. Inhale into the abdomen, then the ribcage. As you exhale, exhale from the ribcage to the abdomen. On the inhale feel your ribcage expand and fingertips separate. On your exhale, feel your ribcage fall and let the fingertips come back together. Practice this three times.
- Next, place one hand on the abdomen and one hand on the chest. Inhale first into the abdomen, then the ribcage, and then into the chest. Let your hands rise with the body on the inhale. On your exhale, exhale first from the chest, then ribcage, then abdomen. Allow the hands to fall with the body on the exhale. Practice this three times.
5. Deal with flare-ups
Flare-ups develop suddenly and unexpectedly. There are a few steps that might help to lessen the disruption they can cause.
- Apply Atrogel - keep some handy in your bag in case you are out when the pain comes on. This can be applied directly to the affected area and helps with pain and inflammation. It can also be handy to have some Arnica Gel by your bed at night in case this is when your pain intensifies.
- Think about whether or not there was anything that could have triggered your flare-up, so that you can reduce the likelihood of it happening again in the future. Was it a particular food, for example, or movement?
- Pause your exercise goals if necessary. You may even need to re-think them if they are a trigger for your flare-ups.
6. Take care of yourself
Don't be afraid to use a painkiller, but be wary of any listed side effects. I usually recommend the herb Devil's Claw for those with chronic pain because, although it takes a few weeks to begin to show its effects, it is not associated with problems like addiction, as has been seen with conventional pain-relieving medications. It can also be taken alongside other pain medication.
7. Seek professional help
If you haven't already sought help, I would recommend enquiring about physiotherapy to ease your chronic pain. This can help to get you moving again and will likely improve pain levels, as a physiotherapist can tailor exercises to suit your abilities. If you are unable to get to a clinic, many experts can offer online sessions.
8. Focus on good sleep
Poor sleep is known to make pain worse but, as it is also more difficult to sleep with pain, it can be a bit of a vicious cycle.
Our sleep hub has a whole host of tips on how to sleep better but for now I've listed a few key points. Some of these may be familiar but it's worth having a little reminder!
Advice for sleeping better
- Minimise the chance of sleep being disrupted by keeping pets locked out of the bedroom and by putting phones in another room.
- Relax in the hour or so before sleep. Again, put phones away and avoid stimulating light from televisions and computers.
- Avoid snacking on chocolate or sweet things after dinner. If you get hungry try a mix of nuts and seeds and a small glass of water.
- Try wearing an eye mask on summer nights when the sun stays around for longer and rises early.
- Try a gentle sleep remedy like Dormeasan if you struggle to drift off to sleep.
9. Connect with others
Let family and friends know how you're feeling to help offload a little of the stress of your condition. Talking about your pain also means people are likely to be more understanding if you are unable to participate in certain activities.
There are also lots of websites, such as Action On Pain, which offer support for people with chronic pain. As well as providing help and advice, this is a good way to connect with others who are in a similar position to yourself.
10. Amend your diet
Finally, diet can play an important part in managing chronic pain. If you are familiar with my muscles and joints blogs, you'll know that I recently looked at foods to improve chronic pain, as well as things that may actually exacerbate it. Here's a quick summary of that blog!
|Foods to limit
||Sweet pepper (cut into strips, it makes a tasty snack!)
|Biscuits and cake
||Nuts and seeds
||Whole fruits like strawberries
|Large quantities of meat
||Legumes and leafy green vegetables
|White, rice, pasta and bread
||Wholegrain varieties of rice, bread and pasta