Institute of Medicine reports that whooping 122 million people in the US-that’s one in three-suffer from some kind of chronic pain. If you’re one among them, chances are your physician has told you, “It’s all in your head.”
The chronic pain you often experience wears many disguises. Sometimes it can be psychosomatic, which does not mean you’re faking (that’s another term: malingering) or it’s all in your head, but it definitely means you’re in a real debilitating pain that has arisen due to some psychological factors, like depression or stress.
In some cases, the pain may be caused by some mysterious injury that may or may not be visible on MRIs or x-rays. As you know, sometimes pain may occur due to underlying conditions, like fibromyalgia, arthritis, or neuropathy. And if all these options weren’t enough, sometimes pain may stem from damage to spinal cord or nerves-the real pain system itself.
I was really inspired by the awesome book Managing Pain Before It Manages You, by Dr. Margaret A. Caudill that links chronic pain in the body to a simple fire alarm that continues clanging much before the actual fire breaks out.
But whatever may be source of your chronic pain, whether it’s in your head or any other body part, it’s still, well, a pain. For all those who get migraine attacks, joint pain, back pain, or anyone else, who feels tension headaches are reserved just for amateurs, I’m providing five surprising tips to manage your chronic pain.
Tip #1: Be active-Believe me, it’s counterintuitive. You may feel it’s better to rest your body to protect its painful area. You may fear of more pain if you move.
While rest is important to address acute pain, like pulled muscle or sprained ankle, rest also reinforces chronic pain. With more rest, your muscle may get weak, and stiff due to inactivity, and your pain may become overwhelming and may actually intensify.
So what are the activities you can do? Simple, walk, slowly ride your bicycle, do chair exercises, swim. Search for gentle yoga classes in your area. You can also lift light weights. And never skip physical therapy.
An easy trick to break up your exercises into shorter chunks-you can try four 10-minute walks rather than one long walk. Also, never leave activity until late in the day-you’ll never be unmotivated or simply too tired.
Your active lifestyle has one last benefit: it will make you less prisoner of your debilitating pain. You will be in a position to go outside, set your goals, or make a close group with friends, all of which staves off hopelessness and depression in addition to reducing your pain.
Tip #2:Pain you’re experiencing is not your fault, but you definitely are responsible for taking care of it-So in other words, you actually own your pain. Too often, people get caught up in existential rumination such as what we did to deserve this or why we have this pain. Mostly, we try to rely too much on health care system to rescue us and, when it’s not successful, we gt caught up in anger and blame. This results in tension build-up, which ultimately leads to-you guessed that right-more pain. You can stop this cycle if you decide that from now on you will be the driver of this pain. Therapist and doctors are there to help, but you’re in charge of your pain.
Tip #3: Closely track your pain-I know, I know, you would want to simply forget about your pain, much less keep track of it. But when you maintain a pain dairy, you can make connections between things you do and how you feel.
So, simply spend a week or two keeping track on activities during your day and the amount of pain you feel. There is no need to track every detail-just broad strokes like “grocery shopping” or “sat at my desk all afternoon” will do. Then go ahead and rate your pain on a 0-10 scale. Try to use the whole scale, as you won’t get any results from an unhelpful chart loaded with 5’s and nothing else.
Once you’ve tracked your pain for few weeks, look for patterns. Maybe you feel worse after spending some time sitting before your computer or when you’re on your feet, or on days when you push yourself to the limit.
Now use this data to slowly modify your schedule or environment. If sitting for hours at your desk at work is killing your back, get your chair evaluated and even try a standing desk. If you feel your pain flares from preparing dinner, break down the task into smaller chunks or delegate where possible.
Tip #4: Question your beliefs about your pain-This is definitely the big one. In fact, your thoughts may actually be working against you. You actually own your pain, so there’s no point saying “My pain makes me a bad wife or a mom”. Instead, say “I have the power to muscle through this.” “If I cannot do any work, I can’t ever let myself do something fun- that would definitely be too indulgent.”
Be optimistic and ask yourself-“Are these pains really working against me?”. In most cases, you will find duds. So recalibrate: “I can impact my pain”. “I do face more challenges than an average mom, but I’m not that bad, plus I also set a good example that I’m trying hard.” “I don’t have to power through; I’ll definitely try to outsmart my pain by pacing.” Even if I fail to work, doing fun things give me sufficient energy to fight my pain.”
Tip #5: Never push through it– If you do it will get worse, I guarantee. So, be calm and resist getting indignant and showing your pain who’s boss. You may want to push through and do chores on your to-do list, but the next morning it would be impossible for you to get out of your bed.
Instead of strong-arming the pain you’re experiencing, try a simple technique called pacing. In this, you need to immediately stop the activity before you’re in pain. So here you need to go by the time, not task. The success lies in timing how long you can comfortably do the challenging activities, like cleaning, driving, or typing. Once you understand your limits, try doing those activities for less time than your observed limit, and then take a small break before your pain flares.
For instance, instead of washing all your clothes, do them for ten minutes, then take a break, then again wash for 10-20 more minutes, and take a break to fold some laundry while sitting in a chair. Finally, finish up with ten more minutes. You need to make some changes in your habits, but life becomes much easier and you are better placed to prevent pain.
To wrap up, know you’re not alone: 49 million people in the United States sleep is disturbed by pain more than once in a week, 29 million Americans suffer from frequent back pain, and $647 billion dollars annually are either spent by the health care system on managing chronic pain or are completely lost due to disability or decreased productivity.
So in short, if you’re down with pain, you’re in good company. And it’s not just in your head. Well, okay, unless it’s a migraine or simple headache, but you get the picture.
National Centers for Health Statistics. (2006). Chartbook on Trends in the Health of Americans 2006, Special Feature: Pain.