The notion of a pain awareness month is an odd thing; probably even more so to those suffering from chronic pain. Typically the idea with these periods of recognizing diseases and conditions is to create sensitivity among the general public toward one’s condition. In this and the next Straight, No Chaser, we will not only do that but will build upon that and provide those sufferers of chronic pain some better tools to make those emergency room visits more productive.
I’d begin by asking you to get more in touch with your “you sensitivity” and learn to differentiate between different types of pain. It’s important for you to know the difference.
- Clearly there’s acute pain from injury. You break a jaw or twist an ankle, you’re going to hurt.
- There’s acute exacerbations of pain from disease. You have sickle cell anemia? Cancer? Lupus? Sciatica or other low back pain? Arthritis? Migraines? You will have acute flare ups.
Then there’s chronic pain. Remember, sometimes pain happens without injury or disease. Pain is simply a signal communicated from your body to you through your brain. Acute pain is normal and is meant to alert you to somehow protect yourself or get help. Chronic pain is different. Those signals coming from your nervous system can be sporadic or haphazard, and they may be more reflective of dysfunction within the nervous system than a disease or injury. It can even be psychogenic (due to matters of your mind). Regardless of the cause, chronic pain is well, a pain.
There are many established conditions that cause chronic pain, such as the following:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Interstitial cystitis
- Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome)
Maybe the point of this post isn’t to tell those of you who suffer from chronic pain things you don’t already know as much as it is to organize your thoughts and approach to your pain. After all, it’s not like there are cures for chronic pain besides eliminating the underlying condition (which reminds me to remind you not to fall for the many medical scams promising instant and permanent relief to these medical conditions). The first step really is to help you appreciate the need for becoming better sensitized to your condition. Many patients with chronic pain suffer horrible outcomes because they become desensitized to pain, learn to ignore it, and misinterpret a new, unrelated pain condition (maybe with a few similarities), failing to get evaluated before it is too late.
If you suffer from chronic pain, it’s key to know the things you can do to improve your quality of life. Strengthening your mind to reduce stress and avoid fixating on your medical condition is very important. Learning to relax actually is treatment; your body has pain-reducing chemicals, including those that directly treat pain and promote healing, and others that prevent release of internal pain producers. Find someone with whom you can discuss relaxation and stress reduction.
Engage the fight to get better within your physical limitations.
- Exercise remains key. Depending on your situation, walking, running, biking and/or swimming can dramatically improve your situation. Be advised that the extremes (not exercising at all or doing so too much) can actually worsen the situation.
- Stretching and strengthening similarly produce benefits to those with chronic pain. This should sound like a good reason to become involved with a personal trainer or have a physical therapist.
- Regular sleep and avoidance of nicotine (stop smoking!) will also help.
Your physician may discuss multiple other possible treatment modalities, such as the following:
- Behavioral therapy can reduce your pain and decrease your stress through methods that help you relax, such as meditation, tai chi, and yoga. Give it a try. It works for many people.
- Brain stimulation therapy
- Local electrical stimulation
- Occupational therapy teaches you how to perform routine activities of daily living in a way that reduces your pain and/or avoids reinjuring yourself.
- Osteopathic manipulation therapy (OMT)
Regarding medication, for many people use of medication (especially narcotics) becomes a crutch and a slippery slope. Over the counter medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen are quite effective for many causes of pain. Use of narcotics should be measured and part of an overall plan, not a tool for a quick fix or to get you out of your doctor’s face. It is part of reality that even if you are not a drug-seeking patient, with enough exposure to narcotics you will develop tolerance (less effectiveness at the same dose) and become addicted. You should want to avoid this fate.
The pain, mental duress and reduction in quality of life associated with chronic pain can be lessened with you learning how to approach and understand your pain, taking appropriate steps to reduce things you do to exacerbate the pain, increasing the things you do to lessen the pain, and working with your health care team to provide you with appropriate support and treatment.
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