Q. I’ve been suffering with chronic pain for six months. Medication relieves the pain some but the side effects of the medication stop me from using very much of it. My doctors have told me to remain as active as I can and “live with the pain.” Can you suggest anything that would help me do this?
A. There are a number of things you can do that will help you learn to live with the pain or better yet lessen or end the pain. The most important one is to develop a positive attitude. Our thoughts have a profound effect on our moods and on our pain.
Herbert Benson, M.D. in his book Timeless Healing cites the placebo effect as evidence of the power of our thoughts. Patients believe sugar pills will alleviate their pain and their belief makes this happen. A research study showed that patients with chronic pain were more likely to be handicapped, no matter the severity of their pain, if they believed pain indicated impairment. In other words, those who believed pain and disability were always linked became more crippled. When patients focused their minds on thoughts of being active and well, even though in pain, their health improved.
Andrew Weil in his book Spontaneous Healing says the psychic aspect of pain can be modified by hypnotherapy, guided imagery, meditation and acupuncture. He also suggests that deep breathing exercises can help. Similarly, the book Nutritional Healing, a huge reference book, lists many of the same procedures and includes also biofeedback, chiropractic and more. It suggests that the physical and psychological can be intertwined. So for example a physical reduction of pain may decrease anxiety and improve outlook. The mind can also be used to relax muscles and effect other physical changes that reduce pain.
How can you do this? Notice what you say to yourself about your pain. Thoughts such as “I can’t stand this pain” Or “I’m never going to feel any better” can cause you to tense up, causing more pain. Thoughts such as “What did I do to cause this?” or “Why is God punishing me?” are common to most of us but can lead to guilty anguish about something you didn’t cause. Pain is not a punishment for something we’ve done.
Express your feelings - your fears, anxiety, and anger about what has happened to you.. When we express feelings we feel relief. Write about your feelings and then let it go. Distract yourself from the pain. Focus on something other than your symptoms. Focus on what you can still do, rather than on what you’re unable to do. Listen to music, watch TV, work a crossword puzzle.
Practice relaxation exercises. Use your imagination to keep your mind off your pain and to help you relax. Visualize a peaceful scene. See yourself in this scene and use all your senses to notice specific details such as a soft breeze, a butterfly, puffy white clouds. Learning relaxation exercises reduces the tension in your body. Concentrate on deep breathing and letting go.
Use your faith to help you. Meditation and prayer will relax you. The Psalms can comfort you. Ask God for help, healing and peace of mind.
If your chronic pain has isolated you from family and friends and from activities you enjoy, make it a goal to get involved again. You may notice your pain less if you’re out doing things.
Exercise as much as you can. Due to the pain, many sufferers avoid physical activity. This leads to a loss of strength and flexibility which can lead to depression. Gentle exercise will help decrease pain and strengthen muscles giving you greater mobility and independence.
The responses of family and friends to your chronic pain can add to your problems. If your family misunderstands your pain, they may minimize or even dismiss it. They may not believe it’s real. Their seeming lack of support may lead to hurt or angry feelings and to depression.
The opposite response - overprotection, also has its problems. When family and friends coddle and baby someone with chronic pain, the sufferer may become more dependent and more disabled. Talk with family and friends and tell them specifically what kind of support you need.
If you need help putting these ideas into practice, consider joining a group for people with chronic pain.
Focusing on positive thoughts in the midst of pain is not easy. The key is to monitor your thoughts and don’t dwell on how bad you feel. Acknowledge your illness or pain but think about other things most of the time. We can’t control what happens to us but we can learn to control our thoughts.
“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs