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10 effective strategies for managing chronic pain

Chronic conditions, arthritic joints and old injuries mean that many of us experience some level of pain on a regular basis. But chronic pain does not need to control our lives if we can find successful ways to manage it. We’ve assembled 10 approaches to pain management that have proven successful for different people. We encourage you to explore these options to find what works for you.

  1. Stretching

Feel like you’ve heard this one before? You probably have. The benefits of stretching are extensive. Stretching can help increase flexibility and range of motion, improve posture, reduce stress and improve muscular blood flow, all of which can reduce back pain, body aches and overall stiffness. Some people with chronic pain find it valuable to take a hot shower or soak in a hot tub prior to stretching to warm their bodies. If you’re new to stretching, here’s a link to some easy beginner stretches.

Jim K. shares his regime for managing pain from a lifetime of sports injuries. “I do the following daily to manage my pain and allow my body to still function at a decent level with very little medication. Get up slowly, hot shower to warm the old bones up…walk or workout and stretch.”

  1. Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins, the brain chemicals that improve mood and block pain signals. But exercise has other pain-reducing effects – it strengthens muscles, helping prevent re-injury and further pain; it can help strengthen muscles that may be contributing to pain; and it creates stability. Exercise improves overall health and can help with weight loss, both of which can reduce discomfort and improve pain tolerance. The options for exercise are incredibly varied and should be selected based on enjoyment, accessibility and how they impact your pain. It’s important to find an exercise that doesn’t exacerbate your pain condition. This site has some examples of exercises for those with back pain.

Those with chronic pain or other medical issues should discuss with their doctor before starting an exercise program. And for those new to exercise, it is advisable to work with a trained fitness professional who can help you establish correct form.

  1. Physical therapy

While we often think of physical therapy as a way to recover from acute injury or surgery, it can also be a tool to address chronic pain. Therapists guide you through a series of exercises designed to preserve or improve your strength and mobility.

Tools therapist may use include:

  • Manipulation of joints and bones
  • Dry needling using acupuncture style needles to calm neurogenic inflammation and eliminate trigger points
  • Manual therapy using hands or tools on soft tissue
  • Movement therapy and exercise

Katelyn M. recounts how physical therapy at Great Basin Orthopaedics affected her chronic neck and shoulder pain. “After my first therapy session, I felt some relief. After six sessions, I was almost pain free. It was the best I’d felt in years. Dry needling is the only thing that has ever worked for me.”

RELATED: Dry Needling 101 — understanding this powerful therapy tool

  1. Yoga

Somewhere between stretching, exercise and meditation sits yoga, a mind-body practice that combines physical postures, controlled breathing and mindfulness. In the United States, yoga is most often associated with stretching exercises that build flexibility and relax the body. It can also build strength, coordination, balance, stamina, relieve stress and reduce pain levels by supporting the body's own healing processes. Yoga is available in a class setting at many studios and gyms where an instructor can guide you through the movements to ensure safety and make any modifications for injury or pain.

  1. Sleep

Pain can worsen if we are not well rested. Research indicates that people who get six or fewer hours of sleep a night have higher levels of inflammatory proteins in their blood than those who get more. Recovery happens when the body is at rest – muscle recovery, mental recovery and nervous system recovery. Make sure you are getting enough sleep each night, which, of course, can be challenging if you are in pain (see other pain management strategies in this article). Note: alcohol can worsen sleep problems, so if you struggle to fall asleep, drinking less or no alcohol can improve your sleep quality.

How much is enough? The National Sleep Foundation offers these new guidelines based on a two-year study:

  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
  • Adults (18-64): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
  1. Diet

When addressing chronic pain, it’s important to look at your overall health and well-being. Diet and pain can be connected and being overweight can contribute significantly to joint pain, so make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. According to Dr. Thomas Fyda of Great Basin Orthopaedics, “Each pound of body weight translates into at least four pounds of pressure at the knee joint. Losing weight can relieve stress on an arthritic or injured joint and thus help relieve symptoms.”

A poor diet can also affect your immune system, contributing to persistent low-grade inflammation. Scientific evidence suggests foods rich in a group of antioxidants known as polyphenols can have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps soothe and prevent painful flare-ups. These foods include whole fruits (especially all types of berries), dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in olive oil, flaxseed oil, and fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, and mackerel), also may help control inflammation.

RELATED: Are Your Joints Begging You To Lose Weight?

  1. Acupuncture

Practitioners of acupuncture stimulate specific points on the body by inserting thin needles through the skin. Research suggests that acupuncture can be used to manage certain pain conditions — especially back and neck pain, osteoarthritis pain, tension and migraine headaches. If you think acupuncture can help with your pain, it’s important to find a licensed and trained professional to administer the treatment.

  1. Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has been shown in clinical trials to reduce chronic pain by 57 percent, and as high as 90 percent. How does it work? Mindfulness soothes the brain patterns underlying pain and, over time, can alter the structure of the brain itself, so patients no longer feel pain with the same intensity. Meditation involves focusing on the body and observing painful sensations as they arise and them letting them go, avoiding the mind’s primal reaction to analyze the pain that actually intensifies it. There are many apps that can help guide you in this practice.

A specific form of meditation, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) combines the practice of acceptance with the mindfulness of meditation. ACT works when the individual can acknowledge and accept negative thoughts and feelings and learn to observe them passively while developing new ways to relate to them.

After a bad leg break in 2018, Corby C. has been dealing with chronic, debilitating nerve pain. For him, ACT has been invaluable in enabling him to get back to enjoying his life, including hiking, cycling, mountain climbing and travel.  

  1. Massage Therapy

If you’ve had a massage, you likely know they feel good, but they can also do good for managing pain. Massage therapy can ease pain by working tension out of muscles and joints, relieving stress and anxiety, and possibly helping to distract you from pain by introducing a "competing" sensation that overrides pain signals. An extensive review of massage therapy trials was done to assess the evidence, which led to this conclusion: “Massage therapy, compared to no treatment, should be strongly recommended as a pain management option.”

  1.  Surgical intervention

Sometimes pain can be alleviated through surgery. While surgery does come with risks, for some it can be life-changing. A trusted surgeon can evaluate your condition and determine if surgery is an appropriate option.

Middle school teacher Carolyn H. shares, “I’ve been in pain for the last six years, but the last few months were unbearable. By the end of the day the balls of my feet and arches hurt so badly I had to come home and just sit for the rest of the night.” GBO’s Dr. Richard Hayes performed surgery on both of her feet, one month apart. “After the surgery, some calluses I had just fell right off because my feet were in the proper shape. And my entire body feels better. I also no longer have lower back pain.”

If you suffer from chronic pain, we encourage you to be proactive and consider all your options to manage it. The experts at Great Basin Orthopaedics can assess you and provide treatment options, including physical therapy or surgery. Our surgeons always consider all options before recommending surgery, so rest assured you will have the knowledge you need to make an informed decision about your care.