We all struggle to find balance in our lives. Between home and work, healthy eating, weight, and many other factors. It’s never easy. The same is true for those of us living with chronic pain. Just moving too much or too little can cause an exacerbation that may lasts days to weeks. That’s why establishing habits that can help provide long term relief is so important.
Here are a few:
Exercise is the best way to combat pain. I know it sounds crazy- you hurt when you move so you stop moving. But without exercise, loss of muscle tone and strength makes the pain worse. Fortunately, even mild exercises can release those wonderful endorphins, the feel-good brain chemical that elevates mood and blocks pain. Ask your provider what aerobic, strengthening and toning exercises may be right for you. Start small, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. Then build slowly. I break my routine into three different times throughout the day so I don’t stress too much at one time.
It sounds so obvious, but few of us actually take the time to stop what we’re doing and calm our minds. Stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, hypnosis, and biofeedback relax your body which helps ease pain. No time? Just remember my favorite breathing technique that can be done anywhere, anytime, anyplace – breathe into the count of five, hold to the count of five, breathe out to the count of five, hold to the count of five and repeat. Releasing pent up energy from stress throughout the day can keep it from building to extremes.
It may seem like alcohol is a great way to buffer the pain and wind down, but it actually does the opposite. In the end alcohol actually causes more pain. It may seem like a drink helps us fall asleep quicker and get a good nights rest. But, when alcohol breaks down in the body it creates a more shallow sleep that allows for repeated awakenings and shortens the important time we need in REM sleep- where we actually recover and repair damage from the days activities.
A good night sleep
Sleep is the only time our bodies truly shut down and recover. Lack of sleep impairs the brain’s natural mechanisms for relieving pain. New research has found sleep loss not only amplifies the pain-sensing regions in the brain but blocks the natural analgesia centers, too. It also impairs the brain’s insula, which assesses pain signals and prepares the body’s reaction to pain. This is a critical neural system that assesses and categorizes pain signals and allows the body’s own natural painkillers to come to the rescue. Sleeping 7-9 hours each night truly is the best medicine. Make it even better by avoiding caffeine and strenuous exercise in the evenings and restrict screen-time just before bedtime.
Some turn to a cigarette to decompress believing it helps them relax. Initially Nicotine in the tobacco makes the body feel good by triggering the release of chemicals, like dopamine, which give off a satisfying, “reward” sensation. This is what makes smoking so addictive. But that same tobacco also impairs the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to bones and tissues. Loss of these necessary nutrients can cause poor healing, increased inflammation, painful muscles and degeneration, particularly in discs of the spine, which already have more limited blood flow. All exacerbating pain.
A nutritious diet and eating right improves blood sugar control, keeps your weight in a healthy range, lowers the odds of heart disease and aids digestion. Eating well also helps to manage pain. We are what we eat. By avoiding refined or processed foods and eating ones that are high in antioxidants and have anti inflammatory properties we can decrease pain. Aim for a diet filled with fresh produce, low-fat proteins, whole plants and whole grains. Map out meals for the week so they’re ready to go and make healthy snacks easily accessible when in a hurry.
When we hurt we just want it to stop. Crawling into bed or staying in one place can become all consuming in the hopes of mitigating the pain. But it’s the worst thing we can do. Keep moving. The more we sit or lie in bed the more the muscles and joints get used to that position and cry out when forced to mobilize. That’s the only way they’ll stay stretched, warm and strong, with nutrients and oxygen-rich blood flowing in and the inflammation flowing out. Inactivity is the enemy, even at work – stand, walk or take a break every hour. Sitting is harmful to everyone’s health but catastrophic to those of us suffering chronic pain.
Keep a journal
Keep track of what impacts your pain levels. Some ideas are which activities helped your pain and which made it worse, the hours slept each night, reactions and responses to medications, daily exercises performed, and inner emotions and concerns. This will help you get a better sense of how pain impacts your life. We are all different, what works for one may not work for another. Seeing it in black and white can aid in making those adjustments that can make all the difference to getting through the day. And don’t forget to keep your provider in the loop.
Give yourself down time
Don’t push yourself too hard, learn to set limits. Listen to your body and take the time to recover. That may mean saying no or setting aside a moment to meditate and rest before tackling another task. When traveling I used to schedule hours between day activities and those at night. Allowing for a long hot bath and an hour in bed made all the difference in what I could accomplish. On those rare occasion when I’d had enough I also knew when it was time to call it quits. Don’t add more stress and pain to an already hectic life, scheduling breaks and planning ahead for rest periods can improve productivity and decrease painful exacerbations.
One potent prescription for pain relief is to keep busy with activities and friends that keep your mind from focusing on it. After all, friends are more powerful than morphine! It may be harder today to socialize but it’s still possible. Don’t forget to color, draw, make artwork, sing, dance, read, cook. Take classes over the Internet, join clubs, Zoom or FaceTime, there are a myriad of ways to stay engaged. We can take control of our lives and define how we live with our pain.
Know your medicines
I can’t stress this enough. Far too often, patients have no idea what they are taking, how much or why. It’s imperative to understand all the medicines you’re taking, what they are for, any side effects, when and how they are to be taken and whether they can be stopped without consequences. The goal is to successfully achieve a normal mood and activity level. Bring a complete, up to date and accurate medication list to each appointment. Medicines and even over the counter agents can interact so include those as well. Be proactive, ask questions and look for answers that work for your needs.
Ask for help
Reaching out is a great habit to develop and the only way most of us survive. It’s OK to tell friends and family what you’re feeling and what you need. No one can read our minds or understand our condition if we don’t share. When the statistics show one in three people suffer from chronic pain in this country- we are not alone. So ask for help. It’s not worth the consequences. Don’t clean the gutters, move that heavy pot, or replace those light bulbs. Ask someone to do it for you.
Replace negative thoughts
Living with chronic pain can get you down. Feeling overwhelmed, in turn, can increase your perception of pain. To stay positive, first listen to your own words and perceptions- “I hurt so much I can’t do anything” or “Nothing I do seems to help.” Replace these negative thoughts with constructive alternatives such as, “Being active is the best thing I can do not to give into pain.” “Even when I hurt, there are things I can do that I enjoy.” “ I have people in my life who care and are there for me.” Talk to your provider and get help if needed. Join a support group to share with others who deal with the same issues. How we view our pain can impact how we feel our pain.
Having everything in its place and scheduling and planning for how daily activities get done in advance can reduce stress and ultimately pain. We all know pain worsens with anxiety and worry. That’s why staying organized is so important. That way, when issues do come up, they can be dealt with individually and not as part of an avalanche. Even a few saved minutes a day can be helpful. I find mornings are my most harried so I set out everything I’ll wear and take to work the night before, that way I’m not running around at the last minute looking for something important when time us of the essence.
Caring for joints
Use stronger, larger joints as levers; bend with your knees when picking something up off the ground, not with your back. Carry small purses or use backpacks with padded handles that distribute their weight across a larger area. When opening doors use the entire body not just the arm and keep it slightly bent to prevent the weight from settling on the elbow. Guide with the thumb don’t lift with it. Roll onto your side up push up with your arm to relieve stress on the lower back when getting out if bed. Learning ways to prevent injury can be a life saver.
Pain impacts every aspect of our lives but it doesn’t have to control it. With these effective measures we decide our future.