Pain Relief With Stress Management
“The reign of pain falls mainly in the brain,” jokes Dennis Turk, professor of anesthesiology and pain research at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Yet there is a truth to Turk’s joke. “You can never have pain without a conscious organism to interpret it,” he says, referring to the brain. With this organ, people make sense out of noxious sensations and determine how bothersome they really are. A host of factors, including psychological ones, can affect how people perceive sensations, what they decide to do about them, and how they interact with their world.
Stress is a big psychological factor that can intensify the perception of pain. When people are distressed, their muscles tend to become tense and may arouse already tender tissues. On an emotional level, the pressure may amplify their perception of pain. “Emotional arousal or stress may lead them to interpret their situation as being more difficult, and may make them avoid certain types of activities, because they’re afraid it’s going to make their pain worse,” says Turk.
To alleviate the pressure, Turk recommends trying to change the source of stress. For instance, if you find yourself always arguing with your spouse, it may help to find a way to communicate with him or her instead.
If it is not possible to change the source of tension, try distracting yourself with enjoyable activities such as spending time with friends, watching a movie, or listening to music. Participating in something pleasurable may shift focus away from pain.
Another strategy is to unwind. Relaxation techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, visualization, massage, yoga, and Tai Chi. These practices have been proven to be effective.
Some people have found stress relief by joining support groups or by getting individual counseling on how to best cope with their stress or ailment.
For the most part, many of these stress-management strategies have been proven to be effective. Yet not everyone can benefit from each of the techniques. Different methods work for different people. For instance, there is good evidence that people who go to support groups experience pain reduction and dramatic improvements in their physical and emotional functioning. Nonetheless, a person who doesn’t want to talk about their ailment would not be a good candidate for a support group.
Pain Relief With Exercise
Many people in pain often avoid exercise because movement hurts too much. Yet their inactivity may actually worsen their condition.
“The human body was designed to be in motion no matter what state of health you’re in,” says Sal Fichera, an exercise physiologist, certified personal trainer, and owner of ForzaFitness.com in New York City. “If you let your body become inactive, then you will let your body degenerate.”
Muscle degeneration can lead to other problems such as diminishing bone density, depression, and a weakened heart. In contrast, regular exercise can help keep joints flexible and strong, and better able to deal with arthritic pain. Plus, physical activity promotes the release of mood-enhancing chemicals in the body that can help diminish the perception of pain.
There are three types of exercise recommended for arthritis patients. The first, flexibility workouts, involve stretches that can help enhance range of motion. The second, cardiovascular or aerobic workouts, includes walking, water exercises, and cycling. The third, strength conditioning, includes isometric or isotonic workouts.
Isometric workouts are static exercises that involve applying resistance without moving the joint. For example, if you stand up against the wall and press your hands against it, you are working out your chest muscle. On the other hand, isotonic workouts use the full range of motion. They include bicep curls and leg extensions.
To decrease pain and prevent further injury, it is important to apply appropriate effort in proper form. Not all exercises are right for everyone. If one type of exercise does not work for you, there are always other options. Before starting a fitness program, make sure to consult with your doctor and with a trained fitness professional.
Pain Relief With Diet
Here’s extra incentive if you’ve been thinking about losing weight: Shedding excess pounds could help reduce the risk of pain.
“If you’re overweight and de-conditioned, your joints take a major hit, because of the increased poundage that your joints have to carry,” says Elton Strauss, MD, chief of orthopaedic trauma and adult reconstruction at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
There are plenty of weight loss programs available, but keep in mind that regular physical activity and a nutritious, well-balanced diet are proven methods for weight loss.
On the other extreme, being underweight or weight loss with a poor diet and inactivity can exacerbate pain. “Your hormone levels are off,” explains Lisa Dorfman, MSRD, a sports nutritionist and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Normal flow of hormones can help the body combat aches, and activate the body’s own healing systems.
Dorfman says people need not become vegetarians for pain relief. She suggests limiting intake of animal protein and saturated fat, and beefing up on foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, another spokesperson for the ADA, agrees. She also suggests eating more whole grains and organically produced foods. She says steroid hormones and preservatives may negatively stimulate the immune system.
Pain Relief With Dietary Supplements
There is promising evidence that two types of dietary supplements — Chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine — may help relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis. Yet more research needs to be done on their long-term safety and effectiveness.
Side effects of chondroitin are rare, but could include headache, motor uneasiness, euphoria, hives, rash, photosensitivity, hair loss, and breathing difficulties. People with bleeding disorders or those taking blood thinners should consult with their doctor before taking the supplement.
Side effects of glucosamine include upset stomach, drowsiness, insomnia, headache, skin reactions, sun sensitivity, and nail toughening. Some glucosamine products may be made with shellfish, and may cause adverse reaction in people with shellfish allergies.
Some arthritis patients may find some pain relief with bioelectric therapy. “The people who benefit from bioelectric therapy are people who tend to have mild muscle pain,” says Wilson, noting that people with joint inflammation, such as those with rheumatoid arthritis, may not get as much benefit.
In bioelectric therapy, a dose of electric current is applied to the skin to help distract the brain from sensing pain. The therapy tries to overload the brain with sensations to divert its focus on the original source of pain.
There may be skin irritation and redness as a result of bioelectric therapy. This strategy is not recommended for people who have a pacemaker, are pregnant, have blood clots in the arms and legs, and have a bacterial infection.
Strauss at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, warns against its use. “I don’t think there are studies out there that show it works,” he says.
Live a Healthy Life
In some cases, your physician may suggest combining nonmedicinal options with drug therapy. Try not to rule out medication altogether. The ideal goal of pain relief treatment, after all, is not just to alleviate suffering, but also to keep you alive and healthy.
Remember: The simplest — yet often the most challenging — strategy for pain relief involves eating right, sleeping enough, exercising, and managing stress. “If you look at pain management skills, they are nothing more than good living skills,” says Cowan. “If we don’t live our life and really pay attention, the pain overcomes us.”