Since I recently discovered that chronic pain is not a life-or-death sentence, I feel like a new convert. Or like someone who’s fallen in love or given up a forty-a-day cigarette habit. I’m grateful that a casual conversation over coffee led to a new way of looking at life. An achievement at any age!
This is my second blog about persistent pain although I’ve deliberately not written about it earlier. You can read the first blog at Brain plasticity new science and chronic pain.
I’ve discovered that it’s possible to manage some kinds of pain with the mind, using the principles of neuroplasticity. Perhaps it’s possible to banish chronic pain altogether, although that would take work. For now, I’m happy to take baby steps and see what happens.
Acute and chronic pain
Pain is a response to stimuli that our brain perceives as danger. Pain is the body’s way of alerting us to take action. Acute pain results from injuries and disease processes which demand attention. They often require emergency treatment and prolonged medical care.
But sometimes pain lingers long after the initial injury heals or illness disappears. When the danger passes, our brains forget to turn off the pain signals. Chronic pain often changes shape, position and intensity. It can cause debilitating suffering.
Fear, anxiety and depression
The sufferer becomes fearful of activity or even slight movement. They try to protect themselves. Their life-style deteriorates, their world narrows.
Adverse life experiences can pre-dispose people to the experience of persistent pain. Pain, in turn, leads to anxiety and depression. These create a vicious cycle. Stress at work or home also feeds into the cycle. This creates even more discomfort. According to Jeannie Sperry, a psychologist who specialises in pain rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic,
‘It’s rare for people to have chronic pain without also having anxiety or depression.‘
Can the brain control persistent pain?
According to neuroscience and rigorous experimentation, the answer seems to be a resounding ‘Yes!’ Some kinds of pain can be controlled by the mind. That’s not to say that you can ‘think’ your pain away. But certain techniques and exercises can work to alter the pathways in thee brain and alleviate pain.
Activities which can help chronic pain
1. TRY THE CURABLE APP
I’ve put this first because it’s the program that changed my life! I have no affiliation with the organisation or the app. I’m simply a delighted user and participant in the program. You can find it at Curable. It provides easy-to-follow education, meditation, writing exercises and brain training. It helps participants change their thinking about pain and attitudes towards it.
They also sponsor a Facebook page where participants encourage each other on the journey. The kindest and most helpful Facebook page I’ve ever seen. Active, professional moderators oversee posts and add comments as necessary to clarify information.
2. PRACTICE DEEP BREATHING OR MEDITATION (or both)
These techniques can be learned. They help to relax the body which may ease pain as muscles relax. A wealth of material online can provide information. There are dedicated apps like Headspace, Curable and many others.
If you suffer from chronic pain, exercise might be the furthest thing from your mind. But even gentle regular exercise reduces stress and lengthens muscles. Exercise releases endorphins. These happy brain chemicals reduce stress, improve mood and make living with pain easier. My go-to exercises includes swimming, walking and chair yoga. I’m practising walking up and down stairs.
4. EAT WELL
A well-balanced, varied diet helps maintain good health. It can help you lose weight. Regular mealtimes improve blood sugar levels. I know I’m not the only one who gets miserable and angry (‘hangry’) when I’m hungry.
5. DEVELOP GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE AND GET REGULAR SLEEP
Pain often creates difficulties around sleep. Good habits around bedtime help and so do relaxation exercises. As pain lessens, it is easier to sleep. Cut back on alcohol. It will help you sleep better. You can find out more about sleep hygiene at the Victorian Government Better Health Channel.
6. DON’T SMOKE
Smoking can affect blood circulation and breathing. Both affect chronic pain.
Massages can help relieve chronic pain and tension, which helps even more.
8. STAY CONNECTED
Chronic pain makes socialising an effort. Try to spend regular time with family and friends. Being with others can help reduce depression and more pain. Some people find participating in a support group helpful.
9. DO ACTIVITIES YOU ENJOY
As hard as it feels, listen to music, read, do puzzles. Focus on something other than pain. Do something that makes you think. Anything which distracts you from chronic pain also helps to further reduce pain. Talking about things you enjoy makes conversation more enjoyable than talking about pain.
10. TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE
Sometimes it feels as if chronic pain takes control of our lives. One way to make an improvement is to take back as much control as you can..
Role of health practitioners in chronic pain management
Doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and psychologists have a role in the management of pain. Continue to consult with them. Cooperate with treatment they prescribe. Practitioners interested in the mind-body connection can be particularly helpful. You can find them in your community.