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Handling Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is defined as persistent pain that lasts for more than three months. It's often treated with prescription medication and physical therapy, but you can do some things to limit dependency on opioids. The pain might not go away, but you can take an active part in managing it to keep yourself from sitting on the sidelines of life.

Exercise (But Take it Easy)

Engaging in physical exercise when the source of pain itself is physical may seem counterintuitive. But regular exercise delivers huge benefits, especially if you're experiencing chronic pain. 

"Exercise increases overall blood flow, and if focused safely and properly on the area of pain, it can help with healing," says Scott Junkins, MD, associate professor and chronic pain expert at University of Utah Health. 

Exercise also releases endorphins, burns fat, increases cardiovascular health, and improves overall quality of life.

When engaging in physical activity, the key is to do less than you think you can do. For example, if you think you can walk for only 20 minutes before pain reaches high levels, take a 15-minute walk. When you're done with an activity, you should feel like you could've done more. This minimizes the risk of injury. It also builds your confidence, which helps motivate you to exercise next time. In addition, low-impact exercise is always a good place to start. Some ideas include the following:

Put Your Mind to it

You can put your mind to work to help handle chronic pain. "Using distraction methods is a common practice to help deal with pain when it strikes," Junkins says. "By shifting your attention onto something positive or entertaining, you're putting the pain in the background." Of course, the pain won't go away, but setting it aside for a while mentally certainly helps. 

Here are some ideas to help distract you from painful moments:

  • Listen to music or audiobooks
  • Tap into mindfulness meditation
  • Draw or paint
  • Read a good book
  • Write a good book
  • Play board games or cards
  • Play video games (they're not just for kids)
  • Watch TV or a movie
  • Try a crossword or jigsaw puzzle

Chronic pain can often lead to depression and anxiety, as well as tension in relationships. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help minimize these issues. Psychologists use this type of therapy to help patients identify, name, and find connections between negative behavior and specific pain. The ideal result is the ability to manage the negative outcomes of pain that can take a toll on your spirit and on those around you. For example, if you're often irritable toward others, you can pinpoint problematic moments and identify the true source, which is most likely your pain. A psychologist or therapist can help you develop mental exercises and take control of negative behaviors that may be limiting your enjoyment of life.

Get Social

Nurturing current relationships and building new ones can go a long way toward helping you handle chronic pain. Often, pain can make you feel isolated or prevent you from getting out and socializing. This kind of thinking can certainly decrease your quality of life. Encourage yourself to go to lunch with a friend or invite someone over to watch a movie. And don't discount that next party invite.

If chronic pain is keeping you away from friends, perhaps it's time to schedule a small, manageable activity. Pre-planning is important. Make sure your friend is aware of your condition. No need to elaborate on it; simply let them know you may have to cut the activity short. If you take medication, keep it on you at all times. Have an exit plan. Don't schedule an activity too far from your home. Be aware of how long you can engage in certain activities before unbearable pain sets in. Set an alarm for when you need to finish the activity well before the pain comes.

The more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel, and the more rewarding the event will be. Social interactions and support from others can help you handle chronic pain much better than dealing with it alone.