Pain. Such a short and simple word that carries with it such intense and unpleasant meanings. Statistics indicate that 1 in 5 people worldwide suffer from persistent pain. Isolation and frustration commonly accompany the uncomfortable physical and/or emotional experiences; such emotions can, and often do, contribute to overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness that often contribute to what may seem like a one-sided burdensome battle.
To Be Human is to Hurt (Sometimes)
As humans, we ALL experience some kind of pain at one time or another – to different extents, degrees, and intensities but one thing is for sure: it hurts! Pain is different for everyone; it is even different for the same person at different times
All Pain is Painful
A common misunderstanding is that all pain is the same or that it affects just one part of a person – physically or emotionally – for a definite length of time. In actuality, the only similarity in cases of pain is that it affects the totality of a person in different ways for unspecified lengths of time each and every time.
Pain is classified as acute or chronic: Acute pain refers to pain with a specific cause (such as an injury or tissue damage) that resolves itself within 2 to 4 weeks and/or with the assistance of various strategies.
Chronic pain does not always present with one specific cause and lasts longer than 4 to 6 weeks.
Sometimes, an acute pain might lead to chronic pain: the brain might keep sending pain or alarm messages to the body even though the injury in the body has healed or resolved. Visiting with your physician to diagnose the pain and/or any underlying conditions and to discuss options for safe and effective treatment is important.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
For many, if not most, individuals with chronic pain syndromes, one of the primary “tools” used to cope with or tolerate the pain and discomfort of the condition is painkiller medications; these chemicals are, indeed, helpful and often relieve at least some of the uncomfortable burdens of chronic pain for a short while but there are side effects and they can be overused. The consequences of overuse/abuse are harmful and potentially fatal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths related to opioid painkiller drugs have quadrupled since 1999. Globally, it has been recognized that unintentional overdoses on opioid drugs have reached epidemic proportions. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) and the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) have reported that in 2014 to 2015, opioid poisoning accounted for 13 hospitalizations per day in Canada. Worldwide, it has been estimated that 69 000 people die from opioid overdoses each year.
What other options are there?
Undoubtedly, people have changed from generation to generation: Our cultures and societies have undergone marked changes from generation to generation; we live in a different world than we did even ten years ago!. What has not changed at all is the very real existence of pain. To treat people living with chronic pain more safely and effectively requires a different way of thinking about pain and a new set of tools to cope with the uncomfortable sensations of pain.
David Shurtleff, deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCI), notes that “We now understand that pain is not just a sensation but a brain state…mind-body interventions may be particularly helpful”. Conceptualizing the treatment of pain as an interdisciplinary effort (one involving physicians of the body, the brain or nervous system, and the mind) could be a place to start.
“Pain insists on being attended to.” – C.S. Lewis
One of the first steps in managing pain involves seeing a physician for an accurate assessment: if there is an identifiable cause/injury, it could then be properly treated so that no further damage is done; if the source of the pain cannot be confirmed by a physician, perhaps a referral to a pain specialist or a physician familiar with the condition associated with the chronic pain might be considered.
Following a medical assessment and/or as part of a pain management program, additional strategies include counselling/psychotherapy, healthy eating, gentle movement, Mindfulness, and relaxation, massage therapy, acupuncture/biofeedback, and self compassion.
Exploring the interconnections between thoughts, emotions, and actions/behaviours is apt to give rise to new and different approaches or strategies to cope with unpleasant sensations, like pain. Relating to uncomfortable sensations rather than identifying with them could also lead to a different way of living with the sensations instead of expending countless time, energy, and other resources trying to run from or avoid them. Changing routines or habits is usually a tough thing to do on one’s own; the support, care, and understanding of a counsellor or other mental health professional could be a big help. They could also provide you with some guidance, direction, and encouragement, which are of great help, too.
While no special “chronic pain diet” has proven to be effective. Eating a healthy diet provides your body with the nutrients and vitamins you need to sustain the functioning of your body and stay in good health; Mindful Eating habits are likely to be helpful. Keeping hydrated (drinking lots of water) is also important as dehydration could heighten uncomfortable symptoms of underlying conditions.
As counterintuitive as it might initially seem, gentle movement is of crucial importance in cases of chronic pain. Think of what happens to a pair of pliers that sits in a tool chest, unused for a long period of time; what happens? It rusts and becomes difficult to use again. Our bodies are kind of like this, too. Gently stretching or yoga, low impact exercise, walking, cycling, swimming, or whatever form of low impact exercise is comfortable for you can make a positive impact. As opposed to high intensity and long duration exercise for weight loss or muscle building purposes, gentle movements for pain conditions are meant to sustain function and maintain good health. (Any form of physical activity – even low impact ones – should be discussed with your doctor or physiotherapist first.)
Mindfulness and Relaxation Strategies
When the body and mind are wracked with pain, A LOT is going on, both physically and mentally: the heart may beat quickly, muscles tense and contract, feelings of anxiety and worry and fear might flood the mind – really the possibilities are endless! Physically relaxing the muscles can help to release tension and relieve stress. Seeing a chiropractor might be especially helpful in cases of chronic back pain or other spinal conditions.
Learning to be Mindful – fully aware of the present moment, without judgment – is helpful for all unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations or experiences. Mindfulness is a state of being, rather than a special kind of technique; it is about being here, now. Bringing Mindfulness to your life can be an enriching process!
For any sickness or illness, from cancer to chronic pain to depression or anxiety, a Mindfulness program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been shown to be particularly helpful in easing and lessening the impact of the affliction; it does not purport to lead to a curing of the illness or eradication of the pain. Instead, it helps to raise levels of mind-body awareness, such that a person learns to relate differently to the uncomfortable sensations: seeing them as they are in the present moment without judgment. MBSR classes available worldwide.
This age-old practice of rubbing and manipulating soft muscle tissues has shown to be effective at relieving pain and reducing inflammation in the skeletal muscles of the body. Even Hippocrates, the Greek philosopher and father of modern medicine, endorsed and advocated for the use of massage as an effective therapy for war and sports injuries! In addition to physical pain, massage has also proven helpful for some individuals with anxiety, depression, and a low health related quality of life.
Acupuncture and Biofeedback
Some individuals also find benefit from ancient Chinese practices (acupuncture) or modern sensor based technology to find relief from or ways of coping with chronic pain sensations.
Relating to yourself with support and compassion rather than criticism and frustration does lead to improvements in both physical and mental well being; rather than tightening up in frustration and resentment when in pain, experiment with responding in the opposite manner. Treating yourself like you would a good friend. Go ahead: give yourself some love!
A Turn Inward
There is no “magic want” to take away all pains for good (at least not yet…); however, there are many different nondrug alternative strategies to try out and customize to you/your situation. Just as all pain is different, so are all people and the pain management plan most effective for them. Medications are certainly of necessity at times; we are all very fortunate to be able to beneficially use the compounds developed by doctors and scientists to alleviate pain. Consider trying out the different strategies discussed here to see what sort of impact or benefit they might have for you. What would it hurt to consider trying something dfferent?
*** Please ensure to contact your physician or specialist before beginning any sort of activity or changes to previously designed treatment plans for chronic pain conditions.