For those of us with chronic pain, it can be difficult to get past the constant struggles we deal with on a daily basis. Here are some tips that might help.
All too often, we get stuck in the “why me” phase of chronic pain. We’re sure this is a temporary malady and keep looking for quick fixes that will resolve the problem. From searching out esoteric treatments to doctor shopping to Internet fads, we jump on anything that promises a resolution. Years ago magnets were popular. I once spent a fortune on a magnet mattress that was touted to help my mothers fibromyalgia. It’s sitting in my closet to this day. Moving past the “why me” phase is imperative. Making that pivotal swing from “fix me” to “how do I deal with my pain” is the first part of acceptance. Then you can learn how to live with it. Not just function, but actually live in ways you thought were long gone. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. It’s not an easy step and you’re going to have slips and slides along the way. But the more you realize what you can do and let go of what you can’t, the happier you’ll be.
Don’t stop moving:
No matter what happens, keep on moving. I know it hurts. I know it’s hard when every fiber of your being says “no!”. You have to work through it. The worst thing you can do is nothing, but hurting yourself isn’t an option either. You have to find a middle ground that’s safe. That’s why I’m such a supporter of physical therapy. They can help teach you how to mobilize safely.
I often use the analogy with patients that if your finger were put in a splint and prevented from moving for a month, it’d become frozen. Any movement, if able, would be excruciating. Not because it was damaged or hurt but because it wasn’t moved. Bed rest is chronic pain’s enemy. Move, everyday. It’s my number one treatment- exercise. Moving all my muscles. Improving circulation in joints helps to relieve the inflammation and restore mobility. Wear a pedometer and set a goal to ultimately walk 10,000 steps a day on a regular basis. One gentle form of exercise that may work when space is limited is chair yoga.
Drink less and don’t smoke:
When you’re in pain, the pain interferes with the quality and length of your sleep. Pain can make you wake often each night. Sleep deprivation can lower your pain threshold. Alcohol only makes sleep problems worse. If you have chronic pain, drink less alcohol (or none) to improve your daily quality of life. The same goes for smoking. It can worsen any circulation and pain issues by impairing the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to bones and tissues. Decreasing blood and nutrient flow can cause degeneration, particularly in discs of the spine, which already have more limited blood flow. The result can be lower back pain and sometimes osteoporosis besides increasing your risk of cancer and heart disease.
At one point I decided it was time to take my own advice. I had been telling patients for years to exercise, eat healthy, not to overdo, but never really listened. It was easy to justify, as they did, why I was unique. Why I couldn’t practice what I preached. I had a full-time job while raising a little girl alone. I didn’t have time. And by the end of a long work day, I was too tired. One day I slapped myself up side the head. These were still excuses. So one Saturday, I jumped right in. I walked a half hour on my treadmill and did whole body stretches for another half hour.
Then I died!
Literally, I couldn’t get out of bed the next day, I was in so much agony. “See!”, I told myself, “I knew I couldn’t do it!” It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. A few days later, reality kicked in. Maybe an hour was too much. Maybe I needed to start with smaller, baby steps. So began my slow, incremental process to where I am today. I started with 5 minutes on the treadmill while my daughter told me about her day. Stretching a few minutes, morning and night became my ritual. Then I added a minute a month. Like anything else it took time, patience, and work to establish a routine I could live with.
Honor your body:
As I said in Friday’s post, this can be a difficult step to master. Too often, we feel compelled to do things we can’t to save face, participate in activities we shouldn’t or because there’s seemingly no one available to help. It took years to accept that a 50-pound plant or 30-pound bag of dog food really didn’t have to be moved immediately. It could wait until someone else was around. Now, there are days I get a cupful from the back of my car rather than lift it. Know when to say enough is enough. Those who love you will applaud. Getting hurt is never worth the risk. The only one who ultimately suffers is you.
Don’t over do:
You know those good days, the ones where you feel great? Not pain free- that never happens- but definitely better. You actually feel human. Now, you think, is the day to clean out the closet, mop the floors, make up for lost time. You think you need to get it all done now because who knows what tomorrow will bring. Been there, done that, paid with another surgery. On those amazing days where you do wake up feeling like you can conquer the world, don’t! Do not over do. Enjoy those precious moments, but remember they can be easily overshadowed by the painful ones caused by over doing. Stick to your normal regimen and be thankful for a slight reprieve.
Keep a journal:
It’s easy to believe nothing ever gets better. To think all your hard work has had no impact. By keeping a journal, you’ll see how wrong you are. And you’ll also be able to keep track of what helped, and what didn’t. See improvement in how long and varied your exercises became. Track your sleep patterns to better understand when you slept longer or had fewer interruptions. Document treatment responses to help providers and you decide the best options possible. It’s also a way to help deal with your anger, frustrations and document your successes and achievements. Reading where I was a decade, or even a year ago, can be a powerful way to show how far I’ve come.
You are not alone:
We often believe we’re the only ones who suffer. No one else can possibly understand our pain, restrictions, or frustrations. Joining with those who do can be empowering. They understand your daily struggles and will listen when other’s might ignore or overlook what you are experiencing. They’ll be there to encourage and listen when the need arises and gently remind you when you’re procrastinating. It’s a reason to get up and out of the house. A way to learn new ways to stretch, mobilize, eat, work, and play. Sometimes just knowing we’re not alone can be the difference between moving forward, standing still or sliding backwards.
My pain is so much more tolerable during the day. When I’m distracted by work, dogs, exercise, inputting digital records, or being out with friends, it’s easier to deal with my pain. When night comes and all there is in front of me is inactivity and silence, I feel every ache. Distraction doesn’t change the pain as much as it takes it to a more tolerable place, where it’s not so prominent. This can be a powerful tool to have when the pain overwhelms. Find what works for you- spending time with loved ones, reading, a long hot bath, massage, or meditation. Or all of the above- depending on the situation.
My days of downhill skiing, jumping out of airplanes, even jogging are long gone. But that doesn’t make me less than I was. It took a long time to accept and believe that statement. I’m not made up of what I can physically accomplish. I’m an incredible person, separate from my pain. Remember that, pain doesn’t define who you are, it merely alters the path you need to get where you want to go sometimes. Its forever woven into our existence but it doesn’t change who we are inside or the accomplishments and goals we set for ourselves. A long walk in breathtaking weather, surrounded by magnificent sunsets has replaced the runners high of jogging. Now I get a thrill from being able to walk longer distances, travel easier or sleep an extra hour, uninterrupted. I had to learn to value what I can do instead of constantly mourning what I couldn’t.
You can’t do everything, every day. You have to decide what’s important to accomplish at that moment. Learn to prioritize your time. Sometimes it’ll be showing up to a family event, others making that deadline at work. I used to say I have so many steps in me before I’m done. Listening to my body and prioritizing can help prevent those catastrophes from happening again.
Learn to ask for help:
Too often our pride gets in the way of asking for help. Something we all require help, just in different ways and different times. I’m not sure if it’s the pretty picture of self-reliance and independence that we’re afraid to shatter for ourselves or others. We are no less capable because we asked for help. In fact, we’re more so. We show a strength and wisdom when we acknowledge our limits. And those who love us will feel wanted and appreciated. How often do we spurn help and make those offering feel unnecessary, or worse, thoughtless for asking? We all know it’s the opposite. Now it’s time to let them know as well. They aren’t a crutch to be used when we don’t want to grow, they’re our support and pillars. They guide us when the path is filled with obstacles that their assistance will help to overcome.
Take time for yourself:
We tend to get so wrapped up in what everyone else needs we forget to honor our own. Take time every day to do something for yourself. Even if it’s just a few minutes to breath deeply and tune out the craziness around you. To wind down, regroup and refresh. It’ll not only help you to cope with pain but it’ll bring a calmer, happier person to the table. The old adage- you can’t be there for anyone else, if you’re not there for you first- is true.
I work on every one of these daily. Some days I succeed, others I don’t. But no matter what happens I keep putting one foot in front of the other.