Searching for relief for chronic pain?

If you’re one of the 4.6 million Aussies experiencing chronic pain you’ll understand first-hand how debilitating and frustrating the condition can be. But the good news is there are ways to self-manage and at least reduce your pain. According to the Hunter Integrated Pain Service, pain that lasts more than three to six months is less about an acute problem and more to do with environmental, social or psychological factors. So if other medical conditions have been ruled out, but your brain is still sending and receiving pain signals, it may be time to try some of the evidence-based and expert-backed techniques suggested below. 

1. Try acupuncture: If you’re forever suffering from tension headaches or back pain, evidence suggests acupuncture can help. A large review of high quality randomised controlled trials published in JAMA found that acupuncture was effective as a therapeutic treatment for chronic headaches, back pain and even osteoarthritis and joint pain. Experts say acupuncture helps to resolve pain by stimulating the body’s various systems, such as the nervous and endocrine systems to restore balance and natural healing. 

2. Move more: Feeling stiff in the neck or shoulders after a long day in front of the computer? You could be suffering from an overuse injury, which leads to pain, swelling, stiffness and weakness in the joints, muscles and tendons. Health professionals recommend reducing the time spent in front of a computer by taking frequent short breaks, and cutting down on repetitive movements such as typing and fiddling with the mouse. If you can’t avoid constant computer use, make sure you use an ergonomic chair, adjust the computer screen to eye level or slightly lower, type with your elbows resting comfortably at your sides and forearms roughly parallel with the floor, and adjust your chair so that your feet rest flat on the floor.  

3. Relax your mind: Although chronic pain is often viewed as a physical problem, emerging research is finding that mind-body techniques, such as practising yoga or meditation, can prevent or even reserve the effects of pain on the brain. According to pain expert, Dr M. Catherine Bushnell, who presented her findings at the recent American Pain Society conference, yoga practitioners have more grey matter which appears to protect against pain signals to the brain. She adds, “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain." 

4. Introduce gentle exercise: The benefits of exercise far outweigh any increase in short-term pain, according to research by the NHS in the UK. While it’s natural to feel hesitant about exercise especially when in pain, research shows that gentle physical activity such as walking and gardening can actually block pain signals reaching the brain. Gentle exercise is also great for building strength and fitness in the muscles and joints, which may help reduce the cause of pain in the first place. If you’re in NSW, you can visit the government’s Active and Healthy website to find an appropriate exercise program for you. 

5. Get a good night’s sleep: According to researchers, sleep and pain are more closely linked than we think. Studies show that up to 88 per cent of people with chronic pain conditions experience sleep deprivation, and that around 50 per cent of those with insomnia suffer from chronic pain, suggesting a reciprocal relationship between the two. So although for some people pain feels worse at night, there’s nothing more important than a decent shut eye and experts recommend sticking to a regular sleep routine as often as possible. Clinical psychologist, Catherine Madigan, also recommends relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga to reduce muscle tension and stress to better cope with pain and improve the ability to sleep through the night.  

Understanding pain: what to do about it in less than 5 minutes

6. Distract yourself: There’s no doubt that pain can disrupt your way of life, but you can take back control by using distraction techniques. The science behind this technique is quite simple really – by immersing yourself in an enjoyable experience, such as catching up with friends or watching your favourite movie, you are eliminating the interruptive nature of chronic pain, thereby reducing the feeling of pain itself. When you forget about your pain, anxiety levels drop and you have a greater chance to relax, which in turn helps reduce pain. So whether it’s photography, sewing, grabbing a coffee, or walking the dog, it doesn’t matter which activity you choose, so long as you are shifting your attention away from the pain.  

7. Catch up with friends and family: Staying social and catching up with loved ones not only helps you to keep your mind off the pain, it can also help ease anxiety and depression which may stem from the condition. You may like to open up to others about your pain – especially if you need support – but try talking about other things as well. The point is to distract yourself as much as possible from the pain.  

There are a variety of support services for people experiencing chronic pain. To learn more, contact Chronic Pain Australia, or talk to your GP.   

For more information on managing painkillers read here.

What are some of the things you’ve tried to manage chronic pain? What has worked for you? Join our conversation below…