More than 100 million Americans endure some type of chronic pain. Because mental health and physical health are closely linked, unmanaged pain can do far more than worsen your sense of well-being; it can actually lead to bodily harm. Paired with the looming opioid addiction crisis, it’s only natural to want to seek alternatives for managing chronic pain. Luckily, there are a number of simple things you can do which may help you beat your pain.
Take Fewer Drugs
There’s no such thing as a biological free lunch. When you take alcohol and caffeine, you’re buying a short-term biological payoff. But in the long term, you’re almost certainly making your chronic pain worse. Caffeine and alcohol contribute to sleep problems, which contribute to chronic pain. Nicotine is no better.
Even regular use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications like Ibuprofen isn’t something you want to make a habit of, if at all possible. NSAIDs have a number of serious risks associated with long-term use, including drastically increasing your risk of heart attack.
Make Small Fixes to Your Diet
Our bodies are made out of the food we eat. And as computer programmers are fond of saying, “garbage in, garbage out.” Switching to a healthier diet reduces your risk for a dozen serious diseases, including heart disease. But exactly what does a healthy diet look like? Although there’s little agreement on that topic, what experts do agree on is you should cut back on sodium, hydrogenated oils, processed foods, and added sugars. And when you’re eating grains, try to make them whole grains.
Making drastic changes to your diet and sticking to them requires an iron force of will that most people just don’t have. If you’re looking to improve your diet, you might have more success by making changes incrementally. Many people will find it’s easier to cut back on their favorite snacks than it is to quit cold-turkey.
Take Time Off to Alleviate Stress
People with stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions have been shown to experience more sensitivity to their chronic pain. To that extent, many people are able to reduce their pain by reducing their stress. Sometimes, alleviating stress can be as simple as taking a few minutes to watch your favorite TV show, listen to a podcast, or take a walk around the park.
But don’t confuse what you’re doing with distraction. Watching a violent movie or playing an action game won’t relax you as much as it will distract you. Distraction is another useful technique to deal with chronic pain, but it’s best paired with relaxation, not replaced by it.
Practice Active Relaxation
Stress affects your body’s ability to heal itself. Relaxation works to counteract the effects of stress. But relaxation isn’t about passively sitting front of the television all night watching action flicks. Relaxation is an active process that requires your attention. Two of the most common examples of this are deep breathing and meditation.
For managing pain, any type of meditation will do. Whether it’s repeating a mantra, focusing on your breath, or anything in between. For deep breathing, you’ll want to get into a comfortable position, then slowly and deeply breathe in and out for about 15 minutes. In this way, relaxation is not totally unlike exercise in that you’ve got to set aside time for it each day.
Make Exercise a Habit
The nervous system is regulated by endorphins, which do many important things, including blocking pain signal. In the short term, exercise can provide you with pain relief because it makes your body release endorphins. In the long term, exercise can reduce your risk for heart disease, help you lose extra weight, and keep your blood glucose levels in check.
Because your physical health and mental health are so intimately connected, improvements like these end up reflected in your energy levels, mood, and ultimately in your experience of chronic pain. However, you’ll want to go out of your way to find an exercise that doesn’t feel like a chore. Exercises you enjoy won’t contribute to stress, and they’re far easier to make a habit.