Standing Up To Your Chronic Pain

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Chronic Pain

It's an old injury in your back, or perhaps your knee or maybe even an elbow. In some cases your pain may result from serious illnesses or their treatment. In any case, it's a distinct problem called chronic pain. Dr. Dennis Turk, the John and Emma Bonica professor of anesthesiology and pain research in the University of Washington School of Medicine, says having had an injury or a diagnosis of cancer also can make people hyper-vigilant, focusing their attention on their bodies. Aches, tingles and twinges that might otherwise be ignored contribute to the distress of people with chronic pain. This can make the impact of the original problem worse.

"Anxiety, fear, worry and anticipation of something bad happening contribute to the pain and add to disability," Turk says. "The more things we avoid doing because we think they might be painful, lead to injury or cause excessive fatigue, the more we find that we lose strength, endurance and flexibility in our muscles, and in consequence more and more activities become difficult and painful."

Our individual approaches to handling pain have an impact on how we perceive unpleasant sensations like pain and how we behave. Turk notes that childhood experiences can help set how we react to pain later in life. "Caretakers who made a big fuss over every scraped knee taught us to give pain a lot of attention," Turk says. "Whether we minimize or magnify pain and how we treat it, as well as what we believe about the meaning of pain, are all important components in how we respond."

Turk believes another part of the chronic pain picture is the message in contemporary society that we shouldn't have to suffer any discomfort. "After all," he says, "there are so many medications widely available that are supposed to help ease discomfort." He also suggests that as people experiencing pain, we tend to believe that if we go see our health care practitioner and pharmacist for help, pain then becomes someone else's responsibility. Self-care and self-management in addition to professional care require effort, but they can pay off in better pain management.

"The definition for chronic pain is long-standing pain, if we had a cure for it, we wouldn't be talking about it," Turk says. "Chronic pain is an incurable condition, like diabetes. People with chronic pain need to learn how to take care of themselves, because they can't depend totally on the health care system to provide them with immediate benefits that will take care of the problem. Self-management of chronic pain is the key to standing up to it."

Turk suggests these pain management guidelines:

  • Talk treatment ideas over with your health care provider before you try them.

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  • Take medications as prescribed, rather than trying to save them up for when the pain is particularly bad. Taking medications that way can make pain worse.

  • Consult a physical therapist and try the stretching and strengthening exercises he or she suggests. Follow the advice on frequency and duration of exercises. "The more active you are," Turk says, "the less disabled you will become."

  • Work on communicating more effectively with family, friends and health-care providers.

  • Learn distraction techniques that work for you, whether it's playing cards, working on a hobby, gardening or playing with your children. "Getting involved and being active helps distract from pain during the day," Turk says.

  • Learn relaxation techniques that work for you. "During the night, if pain is interfering with your sleep," Turk says, "use the technique."

  • Use heat and cold. Take baths if they make you feel better. Turk says, "My favorite cold treatment is a bag of frozen peas, wrapped in a towel and placed on a painful body part for 10 minutes, removed for 10 minutes and then replaced again three times. It's cheap, very simple and very effective."

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