Let’s be honest here – living with chronic pain is no fun at all. You can go to bed feeling pretty decent but wake up feeling as though you were hit by a truck during the night. Sounds familiar? I would know, considering that I suffer from chronic pain myself as a result of my autoimmune condition. With the unpredictable nature of chronic pain flare ups, it takes a toll not only on physical health but also on mental health.
In my unique position as both a patient and a physiotherapist, I have been interested in finding ways to mentally deal and cope with chronic pain. Today’s article is thus born from this interest of mine. This article will discuss 3 ways to cope with chronic pain, which I personally have found quite helpful in coping with my pain.
What is chronic pain?
So what exactly falls under chronic pain? It is generally defined as pain lasting beyond the normal time expected for an injury to heal, which is usually about 12 weeks. For severe cases of chronic pain, it is described as persistent pain lasting 6 months or more that impedes daily activities of living.
The phenomenon of chronic pain is linked to a process called central sensitisation. In central sensitisation, our nervous system becomes more sensitive to any input it receives. This can result in altered pain responses such as feeling more pain than usual or feeling pain even with a harmless stimulus.
So how to cope with chronic pain?
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage”. Why is this definition important? It is important because it recognises that pain is not only physical but also social and psychological.
For many people with chronic pain, including myself, we are constantly under stress and anxiety. Will I be able to continue working with this pain? How can I take care of my children when my pain flares up? Thoughts like these are a mainstay in our daily lives. Over time, these stresses can build up and trigger flare ups to happen. It is therefore important to learn to manage stress.
There are a few ways to do this but what I personally found most useful is taking it one step at a time. Instead of fretting over the future events which may or may not be within our control, take each day as it comes. It can even be even smaller than that – sometimes even getting out of bed and dressing yourself on a day when the pain is especially bad is worth, if not a celebration, at least an acknowledgment. Set simple goals for yourself every day and congratulate yourself when you clear them. By doing so, you reduce the chance of overwhelming yourself with endless worries and spiralling into the what-if cycle.
“You are overthinking it, it’s just some pain, it will go away.”
To people who have not experienced chronic pain, pain is just a temporary response to an injury. Once the injury heals, the pain should go away. This is only logical. So it can be tough trying to explain to people that even now 6 or 7 months post injury, the pain is still there and is preventing you from functioning at your best. Furthermore, for most people with chronic pain, the pain is invisible. There is no obvious injury so it can be difficult trying to explain to people that yes, you need that train seat because your back is hurting so bad that you cannot stand.
We cannot expect everybody to understand and support us in our pain journey and more often than not, we end up feeling isolated in our pain. However, we do not have to be especially with the presence of social media nowadays. It is now much easier to find support groups in your area that you can join. Talking to people who understand what you are going through is not only comforting, but might also give you more ideas on how to cope with your condition.
Increase physical activity and exercise
When we experience pain, our instinctual response is to rest and avoid movement for fear of aggravating the pain. While this holds true for cases of acute pain, in cases of chronic pain, movement will actually help with managing the pain. Research has shown that exercise can reduce severity of pain and improve physical function in people with chronic pain. Aerobic exercise helps in losing weight, which reduces pressure on painful joints. It also helps to reduce the risk of developing secondary health issues such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Resistance training, or what is commonly known as strength training, can help reduce joint stiffness and improve pain through strengthening muscles to support joint movement.
That being said, badly prescribed exercise can and do cause flare ups to happen. A common problem I face is overdoing it on days when my pain is at its minimal and then facing the consequences of extreme fatigue and joint pain over the next couple of days. This defeats the purpose of exercising – exercise is supposed to make you feel better. To combat this, I have learnt that activity pacing is very important. I need to know what my limits are and not overpush myself. Getting a professional to help structure an exercise plan and monitor you at the start will be useful, especially for beginners to exercise. With their help, you will learn to recognise when you can or cannot push yourself and this will make exercise so much more helpful and enjoyable.
How do I start?
If you like to find out more about how you can cope with chronic pain, please do not hesitate to talk to one of our experienced healthcare professionals at City Osteopathy and Physiotherapy. Our team of physiotherapists, osteopaths and naturopaths will be more than happy to help you.