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Chronic pain: Tools for living life and living better

Do these situations sound familiar to you?

  • Sharon has had fibromyalgia for many years, although it was just recently diagnosed. Some days, it’s all she can do to get out of bed
  • Joe was in an auto accident last year. The doctors say his injuries have healed, but his neck and back still hurt every day.
  • Lois lives with arthritis. The pain in her joints comes and goes, but even on a good day it takes at least an hour before her hands and shoulders can move somewhat comfortably.

Chronic pain has been described as a “silent epidemic”. The American Academy of Pain Management gives the following statistics: An estimated 50 million Americans live with chronic pain caused by disease, disorder or accident. An additional 25 million people suffer acute pain resulting from surgery or accident. Approximately two thirds of these individuals in pain have been living with this pain for more than five years. The most common types of pain include arthritis, lower back, bone/joint pain, muscle pain and fibromyalgia.

Living with chronic pain can consume a lot of energy we would ordinarily use for pleasurable activities. Patients tend to get depressed, anxious, and withdrawn. Little by little they give up activities that have become too difficult, and they experience isolation as a result. The impact on family and other loved ones is also significant.

Often patients living with chronic pain feel that there is no help for them. They’ve usually been to several doctors, followed recommendations, and used different types of medications. Some of the medications may have worked well but had intolerable side effects; some of the medications may not have worked at all. Eventually patients start to feel that they “just have to live with it”.

How we live with chronic pain is what makes all the difference. As we learn more about how our brains and bodies work, we find that the degree of pain felt, and the amount of tissue or other body damage, does not necessarily correlate. Does this mean that our pain is all in our heads? No! What it means is that our brains, so amazingly complex, may learn to over-respond to pain, and / or that our minds, the parts of us that think our thoughts, may have learned to think about our pain in ways that aren’t productive.

What has been learned can be un-learned, and what we think that is incorrect can be changed. And the good news is that there are many ways to do this.

So what can help? First, cover all the medical bases. Then move on to the cognitive / behavioral / emotional areas. Remember, our bodies and our brains are connected, and they always work together!

1. See a medical pain professional.
Assuming that your condition has been diagnosed and is being treated properly from a physical angle, the next step should be to consult with a medical doctor who specializes in working with chronic pain. These physicians have many years of training in all sorts of ways to treat your pain. They will have good recommendations to make that go beyond taking narcotics.

2. After you have covered all the medical bases, the next step is your thought processes and emotional reaction to pain. Don’t believe this is important? Think about a time when you were having fun and were completely immersed in the experience, and happened to get hurt. You may not have even noticed the pain until later. Our experience of pain (or anything else) is largely determined by how we focus on it. This is where a therapist trained in management of chronic pain can help.

3. How can a therapist help your chronic pain?

  • You can learn how to distract your brain from pain, and to respond to it differently, through tools like hypnosis and guided imagery.
  • You can learn to relax your body much more thoroughly with specific exercises. Relaxation training helps ease tense muscles, and can improve your sleep.
  • You can learn to notice your thoughts, the “endless chatter” that we all have, and where they are negative and non-productive, you can learn to change them. Remember the “little engine that could”? It’s a very powerful tool!
  • Where pain is the result of a trauma, like an auto accident, or where the pain itself has become traumatic, you can be helped to move past and recover from that trauma, which may itself result in a reduction of felt pain.

Chronic pain can come from many causes, and sometimes the underlying cause cannot be completely treated. The resulting pain is not something that “you just have to live with it”. There are many tools that can help improve various aspects of the pain.

The key is look for professionals who know how to work with chronic pain. Ask your doctor for a referral. Or try looking online in your area, under “pain management” or “chronic pain”. Just be sure to check out anyone you find online, to make sure they are a qualified professional.

Remember Sharon, Joe and Lois from our examples at the beginning? Feeling better and functioning more are definite improvements, even if they aren’t completely pain free. You may have to live with chronic pain, but you can live better and enjoy life more.


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