For those of us who experience chronic pain, sometimes we need to use techniques besides medications to help quell it. There can be many reasons for this. Perhaps our doctor forgot to sign off on our prescription on a Friday, and now it’s the weekend and we have to ration the few pills we have left. Or maybe the dosage we’re prescribed isn’t strong enough to fully stop the pain. Perhaps the dosage is enough to stop the pain, but the side effects are unbearable. Or maybe we simply make the personal choice to stay away from painkillers altogether. Whatever the reason, it can’t hurt (pun intended) to have in your back pocket some ways to reduce chronic pain that don’t require dependence on a doctor – ways that put you in the driver’s seat.
It seems like meditation is recommended for everyone as well as anything that ails you. I can’t speak to the correctness of that idea, but some studies have shown that meditation can reduce a person’s pain levels . There are several types of meditation methods that can help reduce pain, including focusing on the pain and working with it instead of against it; physically relaxing your body; and reduction of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Personally, I have had mixed results with meditation. I believe that this is due to anxiety, which has always made it difficult for me when just getting into meditation after being out of practice for a time. Not having any outside distractions seems to allow all of my worries to be heard more keenly in my head. Meditation can feel very daunting when your first few attempts bring you more anxiety, not less. However, with continued practice this anxiety has often dissipated for me.
Some people also feel that if they cannot achieve a head empty of thoughts, that they are “doing it wrong.” There are many different methods of meditation, and most of them do not require you to completely quiet your mind. There is visualization, where you focus on creating an inner world that may consist of a calming place or of a healing force entering your body; mindfulness, where you bring your focus back to your body and the sensations you are experiencing; guided meditation, where you listen to someone who is taking you through the experience; and several others. There are many apps and websites for different types of meditation, and some areas have in-person classes as well — you can try them out and find one that works best for you.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from meditation there is distraction. This pain-reduction method can be more accessible than meditation. It is the one I use most often. Distraction can come in many forms, the easiest perhaps being to watch movies or episodes of a show. For me, this takes one of two forms: I watch something I love that I’ve seen many times and that I find comforting; or I watch something I have never seen before so that I am focused on following the plot and feeling the suspense. Playing video games also falls into this category.
Another method of distraction is music. Again, this has helped me because I am either listening to music that I’ve heard before and love or exploring new music that is exciting me. I also use singing. It can really help distract me if I am trying to sing the correct lyrics from a song I may have listened to for years but never bothered to learn the right words. What has also helped is to try and hit notes I haven’t quite achieved before – even if I don’t succeed (and believe me, there are many times I don’t succeed; sorry, neighbors). Singing can be a cathartic release of stress and emotion as well.
Dancing may also help reduce pain, particularly for people whose pain increases when their joints get stiff. It can also help to move my muscles in a way they don’t normally move to get them loosened up if my pain is due to either repetitive motion or lack of mobility. Of course, you should be careful not to dance in a way that could injure you.
Personally, an important part of distraction has involved how I interact with people. Not just in the sense of keeping myself distracted by socializing, but by communicating to others that sometimes I need to keep my mind off of my pain. This involves me telling the people I am with most often that while I appreciate their concern, sometimes it’s better for me to not be asked multiple times a day how my pain is doing. This is due to the fact that each time I am asked, it brings my attention back to pain I may have been trying not to think about. I’m not saying that I don’t ever want people to express their concern, but I may ask that they do so only once or twice a day.
This can be a tricky one to navigate for the people who care about you, so it’s important to be very clear about your preferences – which may change from day-to-day or even throughout the day. Do you prefer them to not ask at all? Or maybe just in the evenings? Perhaps you’d be OK with them asking if they see signs of high levels of pain, such as the way you’re shifting your body every five minutes, if they sense anxiety in you, or if you’ve gone quiet. This one requires that you know your own responses to your pain and how pain affects you. When I’m having this conversation with someone I always make sure to tell them that I know their concern is coming from a good place.
Talk about it
Pain can be an isolating experience. Not only can it make it difficult to access other people because it can restrict your physical movements, but pain may also erode your desire to interact with others – particularly people who have never experienced chronic pain — even if you were able to reach them at all.
However, you may have times when socializing is doable. The advent of the internet has been great for connecting; it makes it possible for people in chronic pain to find others who are experiencing the same thing when perhaps they may not have before. For me, it was very comforting to find other people with spinal cord injuries – my disability – who were experiencing severe chronic pain. I felt less alone, less helpless. It was a relief to be able to process my emotions about my pain (and there were many) with those who could understand on a deep, personal level. Your family and friends may have lots of sympathy for you and may try to be understanding and to relate, but they worst they may have experienced is a broken ankle — and feeling the pain of a broken bone for a few weeks is a very different animal than having pain for years, even decades. There is nothing like talking about it with people who know.
This is one I also utilize often. When I’m in intense pain I start sounding like a sailor, often stringing together as many curses as I can think of. Sometimes I even make up stupid songs about how much pain I’m in that are full of swear words. Can you tell that I have no children around? If you do, I imagine that you may have to curse under your breath, or perhaps use what is called “minced oaths” – words we utilize to replace curse words. “Cheese and rice, this gol darn pain is a bunch of bullsugar. I’m tired of it, dagnabbit! Flippin’ floppin’ flock!”
And if you think research has shown a correlation between swearing and pain reduction, you’re gosh darn right. Some studies have shown that when we swear, a part of our brains called the amygdala is activated. The amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, during which we tend to feel less pain.
The act of crying is an interesting phenomenon. We do it when we are happy and when we are sad; it comes easily to some but not to others; and tears that are connected to an emotional response have different levels of chemicals in them than those that aren’t. It has been shown that people who cry emotional tears experience a decrease in both stress levels and physical pain due to the endorphins that are released.
I imagine that to get this pain-reducing benefit, you don’t necessarily need to cry about the experience of chronic pain itself – the tears simply have to come from a place of emotion. You might be able to accomplish this by remembering something that was very sad or difficult for you, or something you were touched by. Even a sad movie could produce this type of crying. Crying has helped me reduce my own stress many times.
If you are comfortable with physical contact, it can be a great way to reduce the feelings of chronic pain. Many studies have confirmed that touch is essential for human development during childhood, and that it is beneficial for adults as well. Some of us may not have other people to touch us or may not enjoy contact from other people; in this instance, the touch of an animal may help. Just being in the presence of a therapy dog has been shown to help reduce pain in emergency room patients. Animal-assisted therapy is also an effective part of treatment at various chronic pain management clinics. In some areas there are even farm animal rescue centers that offer people time to interact with their creatures. And if you are able to make the trip, your local animal recue shelter may allow you to come in and interact with the animals.
You can find an international sampling of animal assisted therapy programs here. You can also try to search for programs in your area – therapy dogs sometimes have visits at libraries, schools, and medical facilities. Some programs even have mobile visits where they come to your home!
Sex or Orgasm
Research shows that sexual stimulation – not necessarily orgasm – can also help with pain reduction. However, having sex is probably not often at the front of your mind when you’re experiencing physical pain. It can sometimes be difficult to be touched; your mental state can be stretch thin; and you may also be fatigued. If you do wish to try this route to pain relief, it may help to start slow and gentle. You may have to push through some initial discomfort before you get to a place where sexual touch starts to feel better instead of worse. Of course, if after some trying you feel that you’re not going to be getting to that better place, you need to speak up and let your partner know that it isn’t working for you.
Getting a massage can be a great way to reduce your pain. There are several different types of massage, including deep tissue and trigger point massage for muscles knots and aches; lymphatic massage to improve lymphatic drainage and reduce uncomfortable swelling; and acupressure massage, which may help nausea and tension headaches.
If you can’t afford spa prices or a private massage therapist appointment, there are other options that may work for you. Sometimes malls and shopping centers will have areas where you can sit in a specialized chair and get a short massage for a reasonable price, or even a foot or hand massage. Additionally, if you live near a massage therapy school or institute they may offer massages at a reduced price that are performed by students in order to help them accumulate the required number of hours they need to complete their certification.
Before your appointment, check that the table will be accessible to you, if necessary. For me, because I use a wheelchair and cannot stand I need a table that can be lowered to a certain height so that I may transfer onto it. Not all massage tables can lower to the height I need – or be lowered at all – so I need to find a massage therapist or spa that uses one.
Be sure to discuss with the therapist anything about your disability you feel might impact your massage experience. This may include spots that are tender from repetitive use of equipment; contractures and stiffness from being in a certain position for a while; or areas of your skin that are particularly sensitive due to nerve damage. Also be aware that some therapists use hot towels during their massages – if you are sensitive to heat, you may want to ask them to refrain from doing this.
Lastly, be aware that there are contraindications for massage, such as deep vein thrombosis, severe osteoporosis, and bleeding disorders or if you take blood thinners. If you have any of these risk factors, it’s best to talk to your doctor before you have a massage.
Chronic pain can be very difficult to deal with, and while many of us choose the medication route to try and find relief, it’s important to know that there are other techniques that may supplement them. If you don’t use medications at all, perhaps some of these may help reduce your pain.
Chronic pain can shrink your world and make you lose focus of everything except what your body is feeling. These techniques are life preservers I am throwing out to my fellow pain sufferers, knowing that by doing so I am, at the same time, attempting to distract myself from my own pain.