Sometimes it’s the little things we do or don’t do that sabotage our best efforts to avoid pain. When you’re experiencing pain, it can seem to have a mind of its own. It may come and go at will. It likely takes a toll on your mood and your energy level. It can impact how you go about your everyday activities. You may think you’re doing all you can to keep pain under control, but sometimes even the most conscientious among us can unintentionally undermine our efforts to feel better. Medications can help manage pain symptoms, but there’s more to feeling better than just taking prescription pills. Lifestyle and attitude changes can also be key factors.
Thanks to sound advice from leading pain experts and people living with pain below, we’ve provided 6 activities that can help you soothe your pain and improve your physical, mental and emotional well-being.
1) Challenge yourself to be more physically active
When you’re experiencing pain, getting up and about may likely be the last thing you feel like doing. The idea of working out or going for a run or a bike ride may seem impossible. When you live with chronic pain, it’s likely that you often struggle to engage in physical activity out of fear of making your pain worse. But being sedentary can lead to stiff muscles and joints and cause your muscles and tendons to shorten, and that can lead to secondary sources of pain. In addition, living a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of putting on weight, a risk that can worsen pain in your weight-bearing joints such as your hips, knees, ankles and feet. It can also cause pain in your neck and back.
Pain Resource Expert Tip: Challenge yourself to engage in some type of regular physical activity even the days when you’re experiencing pain. You can start small and work your way up to more demanding and more frequent activities. Whether it’s taking your dog for a walk, dancing around your house, riding a bike around your block, and/or even walking in place while watching television, engage in an activity that gets your heart pumping and your body moving. Choose activities that you enjoy doing so you’re more likely to stick with them. Build up your momentum to establish a weekly routine.
Challenge yourself, but don’t overexert yourself. If you have arthritis in your joints, for example, swimming or aqua aerobics might work for you; the water’s natural buoyancy reduces impact and helps cushion the joints. Whatever you choose, start at a comfortable pace, take breaks as needed, and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts.
2) Express your frustrations
Chronic musculoskeletal pain, especially lower back and neck pain, is often associated with feelings of anger or distress. A recent study at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago found that when people with chronic pain were told to actively suppress their anger during a frustrating task, their feelings became aggravated and pain more severe.
So what is the healthiest way to express such emotions while you’re experiencing pain? The National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association recommends being assertive, as that approach provides the best opportunity to resolve the problem at hand and to reduce your anger. “By handling your anger better, neither blasting away nor by ‘eating it,’ you actually can decrease your fibromyalgia pain,” according to the NFCPA.
Pain Resource Expert Tip: When you feel angry or frustrated, remember this advice from the NFCPA on the differences between aggressive, assertive, and passive. “When you are aggressive, you are only expressing your own needs: ‘You are being a jerk because you don’t understand my pain.’ When you are passive, you are only looking at the other person’s needs: ‘I’d better not bother him with my concerns. It will only rock the boat.’ When you are assertive, you are speaking up for your own needs while still taking into account the needs of the other, taking into account both people’s needs: ‘I know you’ve been really preoccupied with work, and it must be hard to hear about my pain, but it makes me feel closer to you if you listen to how my day went. I’ll try not to belabor it.’
Acknowledge your listener and her/his needs when you express your emotions, but focus on your feelings to get your message across.
3) Improve your sleep routine
Sleep can be a bit of a ‘which came first’ situation since poor or inadequate sleep can fuel pain, and then unrelieved pain can lead to poor sleep. But doctors agree: Getting too little or poor-quality sleep can intensifying feelings of pain and irritability, especially when you’re experiencing pain.
Sleeping with chronic pain can be difficult. Researchers have established that “depression and anxiety and struggles such as the inability to concentrate, disturbed sleep, pessimistic mood, fatigue and loss of motivation may give rise to adverse influences on a patient’s treatment and recovery process.”
Pain Resource Expert Tip: Simply put, don’t let good-quality sleep fall to the bottom of your to-do list. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea (a condition characterized by heavy snoring and brief episodes where breathing stops during sleep) or restless legs syndrome, seek out the advice of a sleep specialist.
Good sleep habits are essential, too. Set a consistent bedtime and wake time so you get the 7 or more hours of shut-eye per night that the CDC recommends for adults. Avoid caffeine and nicotine, which are stimulants, and alcohol, which can impair sleep. Exercise at least 4 hours before bedtime, and create a soothing sleep environment that’s dark, quiet and comfortable.
If you’re still having trouble, ask your doctor about a sleep aid. Some can cause daytime drowsiness or impaired thinking, which can be amplified if taken with opioid drugs, setting you up for mental fogginess the next morning. So be sure to tell any doctor prescribing a sleep aid if you’re taking an opioid or an analgesic. In that case, you may need to start with a lower-than-usual dose of a sleep drug.
4) Check your posture
When you sit hunched over a computer at work or a steering wheel while driving, it puts stress on your thoracic spine and the muscles between the shoulder blades. This can cause back or neck pain, even in people who don’t have chronic pain. In fact, research has linked poor body posture with neck pain, headaches, temporomandibular (jaw) joint disorder, low back pain and other forms of chronic or recurring pain.
Pain Resource Expert Tip: Talk to your doctor about exercises that can help you improve your posture for every day and for when you’re experiencing pain, including low-risk activities that strengthen your core muscles. Challenge yourself to weave the below tips from the American Chiropractic Association into your daily routine:
How to sit properly:
- Keep your feet on the floor or on a footrest if they don’t reach the floor.
- Don’t cross your legs. Your ankles should be in front of your knees.
- Keep a small gap between the back of your knees and the front of your seat.
- Your knees should be at or below the level of your hips.
- Adjust the backrest of your chair to support your low- and mid-back or use a back support.
- Relax your shoulders and keep your forearms parallel to the ground.
- Avoid sitting in the same position for long periods of time.
How to stand properly:
- Bear your weight primarily on the balls of your feet.
- Keep your knees slightly bent.
- Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Let your arms hang naturally down the sides of the body.
- Stand straight and tall with your shoulders pulled backward.
- Tuck your stomach in.
- Keep your head level-your earlobes should be in line with your shoulders. Do not push your head forward, backward, or to the side.
- Shift your weight from your toes to your heels, or one foot to the other, if you have to stand for a long time.
How to lie down properly
- Find the mattress that is right for you. While a firm mattress is generally recommended, some people find that softer mattresses reduce their back pain. Your comfort is important.
- Sleep with a pillow. Special pillows are available to help with postural problems resulting from a poor sleeping position.
- Avoid sleeping on your stomach.
- Sleeping on your side or back is more often helpful for back pain. If you sleep on your side, place a pillow between your legs. If you sleep on your back, keep a pillow under your knees.
5) Think positively
Sure, this is far easier said than done. But challenging yourself to steer clear of negative thoughts, especially when you’re experiencing pain, can keep you from falling into a downward spiral and help you focus on effective pain management tactics so you can feel better faster.
“Being positive all of the time when dealing with illness is unrealistic,” according to Tamara McClintock Greenberg Psy.D. “In fact, being excessively upbeat is sometimes linked with the denial of illness. Being Pollyannish or in denial can lead to negative psychological and even physical consequences. For example, avoiding the reality of illness can lead to people not taking care of themselves. What I recommend is finding a balance between acting falsely buoyant and feelings of despair. Being hopeful is reasonable. Complete disavowal of negative information about illness can be problematic; cautious optimism is often ideal.”
Pain Resource Expert Tip: First, accept that chronic pain often varies in intensity over time, and the ups and downs are a natural part of living with chronic pain. Second, focus on what you can actively do to relieve pain flare-ups. For example, reviewing your medications with your doctor, practicing yoga or mindful breathing and exercising are all things that you can control.
“People who are ill do best when they focus on what they can control—diet, exercise, and decisions about physicians and treatments,” according to Greenburg. “Attitude is important as well. Being positive can be helpful; patients should just make sure there are enough loved ones who can listen when the chips are down. People who are ill need friends and family who can tolerate hearing about all kinds of feelings.”
6) Be open with your doctor about your medications
When a physician prescribes a pain medication, think of it simply as a starting point. The reality is that the dosage will likely have to be adjusted, and you may have to try different drugs to find the one(s) that will sufficiently help you manage when you’re experiencing pain and without causing problematic side effects.
The American Pain Society set guidelines for healthcare providers that focus on 4 key points:
- Establishing realistic pain goals
- Educating patient/caregivers on pain management goals and regimen
- Consider pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatment options and initiate therapy
- Continually reassess patient’s pain and monitor for medication efficacy and side effects
The goal of zero pain may be impossible, but being open with your doctor about the pain you’re experiencing, other medications you’re taking and other treatments you are interested in trying will help her/him provide you with an effective treatment plan.
Pain Resource Expert Tip: If a pain-relieving medication is providing relief, make sure you stay in close contact with your doctor so your dosage can be monitored and then adjusted if need be. However, if you feel that a medication isn’t working, don’t just stop taking it without telling your doctor. When you’re transparent with your physician about medication matters, she/he can likely help you find a medication that works for you. If your doctor doesn’t ask about side effects or how well your pain is being controlled, speak up.
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