Anyone who’s sustained themselves through a long-term illness or faced chronic pain will tell you that pain management is a serious journey. Last year my wife was in a traffic accident. She broke several small bones in her foot. We went to doctor appointments, received surgical consultations, and visited physical therapists. While all the specialists helped my wife start her recovery, we weren't given many practical steps for pain management.
My wife and I did a lot of internet searching, experimenting, and testing in those first difficult three months. Much of my wife’s discomfort went deeper than the original injury and came from inflammation in the body:
Four Side-Effects of Inflammation in the Body
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased stress levels
- Loss of focus or mental fog
- Trouble balancing hormones
Rather than see this as a chore or something that got in the way of complete recovery, we chose to see pain management as part of a holistic overview of bodily health. In addition to my wife, I even ended up massively benefiting from this investment into pain management, and I hadn't even experienced any injury!
The Pain Breakdown: Three Types of Pain
When dealing with pain management, there are three types of pain people may come across:
Acute pain most often comes from an injury and is intense and short-term. For example, when my wife broke several toes in a car accident, her foot felt the immediate effect of acute pain.
Post-acute pain is the more medium-term feelings of soreness and discomfort -- typically after you see a doctor and start your recovery plan. My wife’s foot bruising and contusions weren’t as overwhelmingly painful as the initial acute pain of the broken toes, but they still hurt. Experiencing post-acute pain signals a need to start looking at potential lifestyle and holistic changes you can feel comfortable.
Finally, chronic pain is the long-term discomfort that’s hardest to define, diagnose, and manage. Inflammation in the body and disruption in the natural oxidation system contributes to discomfort. Some of the aches and pains of recovery can blend with those other issues that make it hard to tell what you are really suffering from. One of the best ways to gain clarity when it comes to pain management is to take proactive steps to maintaining health during recovery.
Five Key Factors in the Pain to Recovery Cycle
When focusing on coming back from an injury, it's important to consider five key factors that can help to ensure a speedy recovery. These include:
- REST - Although this may seem obvious, setting aside an appropriate amount of time to sleep is imperative to injury recovery.
- REHAB - One of the worst things you can do during recovery is to allow your body to atrophy through a lack of exercise. Performing exercises specifically for the injured area or to strengthen related muscles and tendons. For example, my wife did Pilates and Alexander technique that worked around her injury and prevented her leg muscles from atrophying. An added bonus for a customized rehabilitation strategy with plenty of movement is that the increased circulation that comes from exercise boosts recovery!
- POSITIVITY - It’s so easy to be discouraged when you feel uncomfortable. My wife had to learn to trust putting weight on her foot again in the middle of the recovery process. She found it tough to distinguish between the discomfort of healing and the ‘warning’ pain of overloading her injured foot. The surgeon we consulted advised her to stay positive and referred us to a physical therapist who showed her some exercises to build trust in putting weight on her foot.
- NUTRITION - Never forget that everything that you put into your body will affect how you feel. Foods with anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties are particularly useful in promoting healing. Supplements are an excellent way to guarantee you get some exposure to the right type of nutrients.
- PATIENCE - Recovery isn’t a straight shot from injury or illness to health. As long as you’re proactive, follow medical advice, and get plenty of rest, you’ll be moving in the right direction. Be kind to yourself as everyone heals at different rates and aging slows down the healing process in all of us.
Now that you have some good baseline knowledge of the stages of pain and healing as well as the basic factors key to recovery, in the next section, we’ll dive deeper into some of the specific solutions for pain management as you move through the recovery process with some handy hints from actual experience.
Managing Chronic Pain
As we drill down into what exactly makes chronic pain difficult to diagnose and manage, it’s worth taking a moment to see how it stacks up against acute pain:
Acute vs Chronic Pain - Three Approaches to Pain Management
- Acute pain management - This type is generally easier to pin down because the cause will be clear. Acute pain will be quick to set in and reduce as the cause of the pain heals. Typically it happens to the soft tissue - think of a paper cut or broken toes. The pain management journey here should be reasonably linear - injury, diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. The demands of pain management will initially be heavy and taper off as the person in recovery returns to full strength.
- Chronic pain management - Medical professionals define chronic pain as any pain that lasts beyond four to six months. When the cause of pain is not well defined or if acute pain outlasts the original cause, it’s considered chronic pain. Pain management will need to be more staggered and piecemeal; building up and ramping down according to flare ups in the pain.
- Hybrid pain management - While chronic pain is not fully understood and acute pain often is often trivialized, taking a hybrid approach to pain management can be the basis of rebuilding your body after injury or illness.
Dealing with a traumatic injury requires a hybrid approach to pain management. Discomfort associated with the original injury often lingers in the body and needs to be addressed. My wife suffered shooting leg pain some eight weeks after breaking her toes. Most of her swelling had gone down and only very marginal bruising remained.
Even so, without any pressure on her foot, my wife had pain. I can’t stress enough how important it is to contact a doctor if the pain becomes too intense. There simply is no replacement for qualified medical opinion and intervention.
If the pain is low-level and you are following a recovery plan, there are several practical steps you can take to treating chronic pain:
Seven Hacks for Low-Level Chronic Pain
- Deep Breathing and/or Meditation - This is a great first step that can help you slow down and listen to your body. Bring your focus to your breath. Breathe in deeply through your nose for three seconds, hold your breath for one second, and then breathe out for an additional three seconds. You can repeat this exercise for however long you feel necessary (around one minute works well).
- Mood Boosters - Feeling anxious, angry, or depressed can make chronic pain feel worse. You can try music therapy by making yourself a calming playlist, step away from any harsh light, and drink soothing herbal tea.
- Lose the Booze - The odd glass of alcohol isn’t the end of the world (as long as it’s compatible with any medicines you take), but reducing alcohol intake while you’re in recovery will help you sleep better. Good rest is invaluable to recovery.
- Keep Score - Keeping track of your activities and pain levels can lead to more productive conversations with your doctor and physical therapists. You can figure out the triggers that cause you the most discomfort, the time of day where pain is worse, and what to avoid doing to eliminate pain. This is also a great way to track the positive effects of any lifestyle changes you’ve made to boost recovery.
- Massage Therapy - A qualified massage therapist can work wonders on your mood and circulation. If you live in a territory where CBD oil is legal (CBD derived from hemp is legal in all 50 US states), it can be a relaxing addition to a massage therapy session.
- Eating For Health - To be specific, consider organic items like tart cherry juice, turmeric golden curries, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and a lot less salt than you may usually use. If you are eating meat, stick to lean foods like turkey and tuna. In addition, low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives like oat milk are great choices as well. When in doubt, making yourself a smoothie with as many nutrient-rich ingredients as you can is an excellent meal option.
- Synthetic Drugs - I wanted to include this last as the ‘break glass in case of emergency’ option. Obviously, we’ve all had to use non-prescription painkillers (NSAID) at one time or another. It’s worth trying to avoid overloading your system or creating a dependency on NSAIDs, though. Always ask your doctor how NSAID’s may fit into your recovery plan.
There are hundreds of other home remedies you might try that could be super effective in your particular case. Hot water bottles aren’t particularly high tech or sophisticated but they can help to elevate extremities for hours at a time.
So what happens when chronic pain becomes more serious and impossible to ignore. How can you stop managing chronic pain and try to get relief from pain?
Relief for Chronic Pain
Doctors and scientists have been puzzling over the question of chronic pain relief for a while. Most of the solutions we currently have focus on long-term and underlying changes. The truth is that most of the time underlying solutions and more immediate relief are best when they go hand-in-hand. Here are some time-honored suggestions to experiment with as you try and curb the discomfort in the short-term:
Five Short-Term Chronic Pain Relievers
- Physical Therapy - Consulting a Physical Therapist will give you specific exercises to work through when times get tough. They might also direct you to valuable pain reducers such as whirlpools and deep tissue bodywork depending on the relief you need.
- Acupuncture - the ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into the top layer of the skin can disrupt pain receptors in the nerves.
- Electrical Signals - A small electronic device sends low voltage electrical signals through small pads attached to the skin.
- Injections/Nerve Blockers - When chronic pain is extremely localized, nerve blocking injections can be a valuable short-term measure.
- Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA) - A relatively new treatment where a doctor uses a heated-tip needle placed close to the nerve.
Injections, RFA, and surgery are extremely invasive options that need a doctor's input to do safely. Lifestyle changes can help balance against the discomfort of chronic pain.
Pain management is about more than simply lining up short-term and easily graspable solutions and hoping for the best. The biggest takeaway for my wife and I was that looking at health holistically - as a series of combined factors, habits, and outcomes - leads to a better quality of life. While small changes like taking a supplement can’t make pain or discomfort magically disappear, they can contribute to a stronger, more resilient body while you undertake your healing journey.
Have you been on a healing journey that taught you some useful lessons in pain management? Please feel free to share in the comments section below!