Disease, injury and aging have at least one thing in common: Pain. While short-term pain is the body’s way of signaling damage and encouraging rest to allow for recovery, chronic pain sticks around long past any normal healing time, disrupting sleep and potentially leading to social withdrawal and isolation.
Chronic pain is a serious medical disease because you are more likely to develop other physical, mental and emotional problems. In addition to diminishing quality of life, chronic pain costs the United States at least $560 billion a year in medical disabilities, missed work days and medical expenses. It is also extremely common, by one estimate affecting more than 51 million Americans — nearly 21 percent of the adult population.
For all these reasons, drug companies have worked hard to find effective solutions. And they have. Today, patients and providers can choose from dozens of pain remedies ranging from safe over-the-counter treatments to potentially addictive prescription-only opioids. More than 2 million Americans misuse opioids, and more than 90 die every day by opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
As the dangers of opioids become clear, many patients are looking for safer remedies. While it might seem easier to swallow a pill, with these tried-and-true techniques and practices, you can safely make chronic pain more manageable and improve your quality of life.
Tip 1: Exercise
When you hurt, it’s natural to want to hold still to minimize pain and let your body heal. But mounting evidence indicates those with chronic pain need to keep moving, and the benefits are so clear that doctors are beginning to prescribe exercise just as they prescribe medications. Exercise not only helps reduce chronic pain, it has general health benefits like these:
- Weight loss
- Improved muscle strength
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Better sleep
- Better mental health
If you’re just starting out, think “movement” rather than exercise because even the simplest activities may be beneficial.
While there’s still no medical consensus on how much you should move, health care professionals agree movement — any movement — is a step down the right path, provided you follow a few precautions:
- Go slowly at the beginning
- Modify exercises to meet the needs and limits of your body and to reduce falls
- Ensure proper posture
- Vary exercises to increase range of motion without increasing pain
Tip 2: Eat Right
All pain originates as inflammation and the body’s response to inflammation. That’s true whether your pain is sharp or dull, aching, burning, stabbing or numbing. One way to reduce chronic inflammation is to eat a healthy diet that avoids foods known to be inflammatory and includes foods that have been shown to be anti-inflammatory. These examples are provided by the Veterans Administration to help aging veterans manage pain through diet:
- Fruits and vegetables (berries and cherries are especially good options; shoot for 5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day)
- High-fiber foods like whole grains, oatmeal, nuts, berries, beans, vegetables, brown rice, popcorn and potato skins
- Monosaturated fats (olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils; avocados are another good source)
- Certain spices including paprika, rosemary, ginger, turmeric, sage, cumin, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, sage, marjoram and tarragon.
- Dark chocolate (check the label — it should be at least 70% cacao — and shoot for 1½ ounces daily)
- Red wine (if you drink at all)
Avoid or limit
- Trans fats. These are added to processed foods like baked goods, piecrusts, frozen pizza, cookies and fried foods to increase their shelf life; look for “partially hydrogenated” oils on the label.
- Saturated fats (these mostly come from meats — lamb, pork, chicken with skin, fatty beef — and dairy products like milk, cheese, cream and butter)
- Refined grains (white bread, white rice, cookies and cakes)
Tip 3: Take OTC Pain Relievers
In the United States, over-the-counter pain remedies are mostly effective for mild to moderate pain. They’re also inexpensive and relatively safe. Popular options include acetaminophen and a group of drugs (which includes aspirin) called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
These analgesics, as they are called, are not all the same and they don’t work equally well on everyone or every type of pain. So, before you head to the pharmacy aisle, consider which pain reliever is likely to work best on your type of pain.
- Aspirin and ibuprofen are both NSAIDs. Both relieve fever and pain and reduce inflammation from arthritis or muscle sprains or strains, but they can cause stomach upset or even ulcers in some people.
- Acetaminophen is a non-aspirin, non-NSAID analgesic with fewer side effects than other pain relievers. It relieves fever, headaches and other common aches and pains, but it does not relieve inflammation.
Beware that some pain medicines could interact with other drugs you are taking. Be sure to consult with your health care provider before starting regular treatment with an OTC medicine.
Heat and cold therapies are also options for pain relief. Heat is best used for sore muscles. A warm bath or hot pad reduces pain by increasing blood flow and relaxing muscles and connective tissues. Cold therapy (an ice pack, for example) works by numbing the affected area while reducing blood flow, tissue swelling, inflammation and muscle spasms.
Patients today want immediate pain relief, and these safe treatments are not that quick fix. But over time, combined with other medical interventions or alone, they will safely reduce chronic pain and improve your quality of life.
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