Coping with Chronic Pain

Mike Olmos by Mike Olmos | Licensed since 2010
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This article was updated on: 09/15/2018

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According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), over 25 million adults in the U.S. had pain every day for three consecutive months or more. The most common sources of chronic pain were osteoarthritis and low back pain, although other conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and fibromyalgia were frequent causes. Chronic pain tends to occur more frequently as people age. If you or someone you love suffers from chronic pain, here are some tips for chronic pain treatment and how to cope with the condition.

What is chronic pain?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines chronic pain as any type of pain that lasts for three months or more. As opposed to acute pain, which is usually a symptom of acute injury or illness, chronic pain persists long after the original illness or injury. Sometimes, there is no obvious cause for chronic pain. Chronic pain may cause other health problems such as sleep disturbance, mood changes, and even loss of appetite, according to NIH.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says that chronic pain is often described as being a dull ache, a feeling of soreness or stiffness, a stinging or squeezing sensation, or pain that is throbbing, burning, or shooting.

The NIH notes that pain is a very subjective condition; there are no medical tests that can measure pain or determine its precise location. Because of this, patients and their doctors have to work together to create a “pain history,” which describes and defines the type of pain and its duration. The pain history helps health providers develop a chronic pain treatment plan. The NIH suggests that both the patient and his loved ones get involved in the treatment plan.

What are the options for chronic pain treatment?

The AAFP says that the goal for any chronic pain treatment plan is to minimize the pain and help you get back to normal function. Treatment may not always eliminate chronic pain, but it can help make it more manageable so that it doesn’t disrupt your life.

There are many options for chronic pain treatment, according to the AAFP, the most common of which include:

  • Medication. Your doctor may prescribe different types of medications for chronic pain, which may include prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers, as well as other types of prescription drugs such as anti-depressants and anticonvulsants. It’s important to take your medication exactly as prescribed, especially if your doctor prescribes opioids. Opioid addiction can be a very serious health issue.
  • Physical and behavioral therapy. Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles to reduce joint and skeletal pain. Sometimes, your doctor or therapist will also recommend some low-impact exercise regimens such as walking or swimming to aid in strengthening muscles. An occupational therapist may be consulted to teach you new ways to do routine tasks to help reduce chronic pain and lower the chance of reinjuring yourself. Behavioral therapy techniques such as meditation or yoga help you relax and lower your overall stress.
  • Complementary or alternative medicine. The NCCIH suggests that evidence supports the role of complementary and alternative medicine in chronic pain treatment, although controversy still exists about some of these treatments. These therapies may include acupuncture, which involves stimulating various points on the body using thin metallic needles, spinal manipulation performed by a chiropractor or osteopath, massage therapy, relaxation techniques, and tai chi or qi gong. Be sure to check with your doctor if alternative medicine treatments to manage your chronic pain is safe for you.

Are there any other tips for coping with chronic pain?

The American Psychological Association (APA) addresses the effects of chronic pain on mental and emotional health, and recommends the following suggestions for coping with the effects of chronic pain:

  • Look for ways to decrease your overall stress. Try to eat right and get enough sleep at night. Regular exercise in an activity approved by your health care provider can also lower your stress.
  • Harness the power of positive thinking. Focus on the improvements you are making each day, even if they are small. For example, if the pain is less today than it was a week ago, remind yourself that you making progress toward a more productive life.
  • Distract yourself with activities you enjoy. If you isolate yourself because of your pain, you may feel more negative and your perception of the pain may increase. Hobbies and other activities that connect you with friends and family members help you focus on the positive things in your life and may take your mind off your pain.
  • Don’t try to do it alone. Living with chronic pain is difficult, but finding support with others who are facing the same challenges can reduce the emotional burden of coping with the condition. Ask your health care provider for chronic pain support groups in your area.
  • Get help if you need it. If you are overwhelmed by the effects of chronic pain, don’t be afraid to reach out to a mental health professional who will listen to your concerns and offer new strategies to help you cope.

Need more information on chronic pain treatment under Medicare?

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