Living with chronic pain is tough. But with the right guidance and support, we can learn how to not just survive but thrive despite our chronic pain.
Chronic pain is defined as pain that is long-term, lasting beyond 3 months. It’ll come as no surprise that chronic pain can sap the joy from your life and reduce your level of functioning. This study explains that “In addition to the physical health consequences, chronic musculoskeletal pain can have a profound negative impact on an individual’s emotional and social well-being.”
Living well while living with chronic pain can sound impossible, but you can thrive despite chronic pain. Living well with your chronic pain isn’t just about managing your pain, but rather about finding ways to live a happy, fulfilled life in spite of your symptoms.
I live with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis. It has been a long journey to get used to living with my conditions but now I am living a happy life, meeting my goals, and feeling extremely positive about the future. I won’t tell you it’s easy, but I will tell you it is possible.
Acceptance And Grieving
When you are first diagnosed with a chronic pain condition, it can be a lot to take in. Learning that the pain you have been experiencing is not going away anytime soon can be overwhelming. It’s so important to give yourself the time to accept your diagnosis. This study found that “acceptance of chronic pain was associated with less pain, disability, depression and pain-related anxiety, higher daily uptime, and better work status. “
It’s ok to feel distraught, confused, and upset. It’s an incredibly hard thing to hear that you have a long-term health condition. But don’t be too hard on yourself. The way you are feeling is completely valid. It’s ok to grieve who you were before you became chronically ill, and the life that you once led. I have been there. I grieved the dreams I once had and how physically fit I used to be. I felt completely overcome by thinking I would have to live in pain.
Give yourself this time of acceptance and grieving, but don’t allow yourself to become stuck in that place. It’s time to dust yourself off and figure out how you can live your life despite your illness.
Understanding It’s Not Your Fault
The next vitally important stage is to understand that this is not your fault. You will hear that there are ‘ pain-inducing behaviors and that you need to change things in order to manage and reduce your pain. This is true but does not mean that you have caused this pain or that it’s your fault you are in this situation.
Learning About Your Condition
Finding out about your diagnosis and chronic pain, in general, allows you to understand what is happening within your body and gives you a good basis to work from. Do plenty of research online: read articles, blogs, and studies, and watch videos. If you have questions, make a list to take to your doctor or specialist next time you have an appointment.
Understanding how chronic pain works can give you a sense of confidence. It can allow you to understand that even though it's painful, chronic pain is not damaging your body. This can enable you to be less fearful when you are in pain. This study explains that pain neuroscience education, meaning being educated in the science behind pain, is effective in “reducing pain and improving patient knowledge of pain, improving function and lowering disability, reducing psychosocial factors, enhancing movement, and minimizing healthcare utilization.”
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, my doctors told me that I would just have to learn to live with it. I was never given any indication that it could get better or that it could be treated! I wasn’t told any of the science behind the condition and so was left fearful that when I was engaging in activity and felt pain, I was harming my body.
Through my research, I realized I wasn’t in danger. I learned that pain, while it hurt, wasn’t actually damaging me and so I became much less afraid. I learned that chronic pain could improve and that there are ways that you can get a handle on it. I became even more determined to get my life back and not let it beat me!
Making Healthy Eating Easy
Learning to provide your body with the fuel it needs to function optimally is so important when you are trying to fight chronic illness. Your body needs the right nutrients for all aspects of functioning, including keeping your immune system working and generating energy.
Eating well doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy. When you live with chronic illness, things are hard enough. You don’t need to give yourself more work than you need to.
I’ve found preparing meals in advance really helpful so that if I’m fatigued or flaring, there is something healthy and quick at the ready. This helps me to avoid grabbing something unhealthy. I and my husband do food prep, meaning that we cook and prepare our meals once or twice a week and just heat them up when we want them. This helps us to keep up with healthy eating habits and control our portion sizes.
You don’t have to cook everything from scratch. When you’re shopping, grab things like pre-prepared vegetables. They’re just as healthy as ones you peel, chop and prepare yourself and it saves your energy for other activities. Some microwave meals are healthy; do your research and figure out what provides the right nutrients.
A slow cooker is something I find amazingly useful. There are plenty of recipes that allow you to just throw all the ingredients into the slow cooker together in the morning, and a healthy warm meal is waiting for you at the end of the day. Gadgets like an electric can opener make easy work of tins.
Using gadgets and pre-prepared items to make life easier for yourself is not giving in; it’s quite the opposite. Utilizing tools that increase your functioning and help you to focus on adaptative (meaning helpful) behaviors to manage your illness, is an incredibly positive thing.
Finding Exercise That You Enjoy
Exercise has so many health benefits and is proven to reduce chronic pain symptoms. It can sound impossible to start exercising when you are in pain, but it really can help. This study explains the importance of exercising, stating that, “prolonged disengagement from activities may result in physical deconditioning, economic loss and further emotional distress as a result of the loss of psychosocial functions” and going on to explain that exercise is key to increasing your level of functioning, managing your pain and improving quality of life.
Starting to exercise with chronic pain is a process of building up slowly, pacing your activity so that you can build up your fitness and tolerance to exercise without causing a flare in symptoms. This can be a hard balance to strike and is trial and error, but is so worth it.
Doing an exercise that you enjoy gives you the motivation you need to face the pain and carry on despite it. There are so many types of exercise out there, from yoga, swimming, hiking, or biking; you can find what feels right for you.
My exercise journey surprised me. I started out barely being able to walk across the room without flaring, and over months built up to going on hikes. Now I can hike rough trails for miles without flaring. It was a slow process and it was hard work, but hiking with my dogs makes me truly happy.
I was surprised by how much my pain in general reduced as I increased my fitness. I have lower or even no-pain days in general since I started exercising, and my energy and level of functioning have increased vastly.
Being Realistic About Managing Your Weight
It’s important to keep your weight at a healthy level where possible so that there is less weight on your joints. This is particularly important with conditions like arthritis where the joint is worn down.
This is something I struggle with. I’m very overweight due to the side effects of medication for bipolar disorder which I also live with, combined with it being tough to exercise as much as I’d like while living with chronic pain. I constantly try to combat this to improve my physical health. It’s an ongoing journey for me, one that I will not give up on.
I have learned that it’s so important not to be too hard on yourself. Nobody is perfect. If you are doing your best to manage your weight and improve your life, then that’s more than good enough.
Finding Ways to Sleep Well
Sleeping can be one of the toughest things to achieve when you’re in pain, yet fatigue is almost ever-present. This study explains how detrimental a disturbed sleep routine can be:” sleep disturbance interacts with central pain processing and inflammatory mechanisms to augment pain, low mood, and poorer physical functioning”
Finding ways to improve your sleep routine can be so beneficial to increasing your energy levels and balancing your mood as well as reducing pain. I’ve found that getting up at roughly the same time in the morning consistently, even if I haven’t slept well, really helps. I try to minimize naps during the day; it’s not always possible to eliminate them but reducing their frequency and length is helpful.
Being active during the day helps your body and mind to be tired enough to sleep. Since I started exercising, I can see the difference in the days when I do and don’t exercise regarding how well I sleep.
If you take medications that have sedative side effects, taking them about half an hour before bed can let you use those side effects in your favor. Winding down before bed is important to prepare your body for sleep. This can be whatever makes you feel most relaxed. It could be mindfulness meditation, listening to an audio book or relaxing music, or reading a book in bed. Making your bedroom cozy and comforting is relaxing too!
Learning Your Limits and Triggers
You’re not always going to be able to do everything that you want to; that’s tough to learn and accept. It’s important to stay active and not let your chronic pain rule your life, but it’s also important not to be constantly overdoing things to the point of a flare in your symptoms.
Figuring out what triggers flares in your symptoms is a vital tool you can use to your advantage. Monitoring your pain levels can allow you to see patterns and figure out what might have caused a flare. This knowledge gives you the power to tackle your triggers in a gradual way to overcome them.
Finding a balance and learning your limits can take time, so remember to be patient with yourself.
It can be all too easy to feel guilty about not being able to keep up with what your loved ones are doing or for needing to ask for help. In order to live a happy life with your chronic illness, you need to release this guilt.
That’s easier said than done and certainly takes time. However, as you learn how to live well with your illness, how to manage your pain, and increase your functioning, guilt can be replaced with a sense of empowerment, determination, and confidence.
Finding Joy and Motivation
Chronic pain can often sap all the joy out of your life. It doesn’t have to stay that way though! Once you get a handle on your chronic pain and figure out how to manage your symptoms, you can start to find joy in your life again!
Finding joy can be anything that makes you happy! It could be something like attending a class once a week, taking up a new hobby, having a pet, making new social connections, or getting back to work.
When your level of functioning is low, it can feel as though your life is all about your chronic pain, but you can shape your future and find purpose again. The goals that you set for the future might not look exactly as they used to but they can be just as wonderful.
Sometimes it might take longer to achieve your goals and you may have bumps in the road, but if you set goals, you really feel passionately about, you will have the motivation to overcome your symptoms and persist until you are successful. This study on assessing the quality of life in those with chronic pain explains that “One of the mechanisms by which improvements are hypothesized to occur is via a shift in patient focus away from a primary goal of pain reduction toward goals associated with living meaningful and productive lives.”
When I was first diagnosed my symptoms were my whole life. As I learned how to reduce my symptoms and had the confidence to tackle them, I began to find joy and set new goals. I found joy in my wonderful husband, family, and friends. I began to write again which was something I had always loved. I used to want to work with animals, but now I still have them in my life as pets and that’s just as beautiful.
I set new goals, writing part-time and doing admin work for the rest of the time. I knew that I wanted to write full-time and so continued to work on gaining experience, and in 2019, I finally got the opportunity I had been working towards. I am now a full-time writer and it fills me with joy and pride to say that.
It took years to learn to manage my condition, but I did it and it was so incredibly worth it! I can’t describe how grateful I am for that. You can find new goals and you can achieve them!
Appreciating The Little Things
Another way to draw joy into your life is to really appreciate the ‘small’ things in life. Praising yourself for small achievements like taking a shower, getting up and dressed, or doing some exercise for example. Don’t dismiss those things as something you ‘should’ be able to do, instead praise yourself every step along the way and celebrate those achievements, because they are tough, and they do deserve to be celebrated.
So often people rush past simple joys when those little things can really bring such happiness if they are appreciated fully. Find joy in small things like a TV program you enjoy or a tasty piece of cake. Really soak up that moment and take notice of the happiness it brings.
Finding Ways to Reduce Stress
Being in pain is stressful, but stress causes and worsens chronic pain. It’s an ongoing cycle but one that you can work on breaking. Finding ways to reduce stress in your life can help immensely. Taking some time to really look at what causes you stress is helpful, and then addressing them one by one.
Be sure to talk to someone you trust about your feelings; it can feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders when you share your problems rather than keeping them to yourself.
Learning how to implement mindfulness into your day-to-day life as well as carrying out mindfulness meditations can help you to relax and reduce stress. This book describes mindfulness as, “to live in the moment, notice what is happening and make choices about how you respond to your experience rather than being driven by habitual reactions”; essentially mindfulness gives you more control over your emotions and your behaviors.
Learning how to reduce your symptoms and better manage your pain allows you to feel more in control. Seeking therapies can help you to tackle hypervigilance, catastrophizing, and fear about your pain, which can take away a big part of the cause of stress in your life.
Precision Pain Care and Rehabilitation has two convenient locations in Richmond Hill – Queens and New Hyde Park – Long Island. Call the Queens office at (718) 215-1888, or (516) 419-4480 for the Long Island office, to arrange an appointment with our Interventional Pain Management Specialist, Dr. Jeffrey Chacko.