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How to manage chronic pain

Pain isn't necessarily a bad thing. How long would your hand rest on a hot radiator if the burning didn't cause pain? How would you know your appendix was inflamed if it didn't hurt?

Pain is your body's way of telling you that something's wrong and you need to act. It gives your body a voice.

But that voice loses its purpose when pain becomes chronic and unrelenting.

What is chronic pain?

Everyone is familiar with the temporary pain of a stubbed toe or a sprained wrist.

That's acute pain. It usually improves once the cause has been treated.

Chronic pain isn't easily relieved. According to the Arthritis Foundation, pain is considered chronic if it has lasted at least three months. But chronic pain can go on much longer than that. It might be caused by an old injury, such as a sprained back, or a disease, such as arthritis.

Chronic pain can make the ordinary tasks of daily living extraordinarily difficult. It can take away your ability to work, enjoy life and be active. It's a problem that can overwhelm your life, causing fatigue, anxiety and depression. But there are steps you can take to manage chronic pain.

Your pain-management plan

Once you're told you have a condition that causes chronic pain, your first questions will probably center on finding relief.

This is where your pain-management plan begins. You should work with your doctor and other healthcare providers to design your plan. You may need to try several different treatments before finding the combination that works for you.

Your plan might include medications, an exercise regimen and other therapies. You'll want to track what methods you've used and which have worked best. You can do that using an app, a spreadsheet or a diary.

Write it down

Keeping a record of your health details can help in a variety of ways. 

You can keep track of your medicines so that you have a record of what has worked and what hasn't. You can also keep track of your symptoms, noting when your pain occurs, where it hurts and for how long.

Be as detailed as you can when noting the type of pain you feel. Is it aching and throbbing? Or is it stabbing and burning?

Strategies for easing chronic pain

Medications are an important part of your pain-management plan, but they aren't your sole coping tool. Here are some other therapies to try, according to the Arthritis Foundation and other experts:

  • Exercise. It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you're in pain, but exercise can be a powerful pain reliever. It can reduce inflammation, boost energy and increase the flow of pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.
  • Work on the mind-body connection. Cognitive behavioral therapy is talk therapy that aims to change negative thought patterns. It may help ease chronic pain from arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • Support groups. Ask your doctor to refer you to a support group, where you can get tips from other people with similar conditions.
  • Consider a multidisciplinary pain clinic. Although a rheumatologist or your primary care doctor often can help you manage pain, you may need more specialized pain care. Ask your doctor for a referral to a pain center.

Reviewed 10/20/2023

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