A staggering number of Americans live with chronic pain. But that doesn’t mean it has to control your life.
Chronic pain isn’t just debilitating. It’s also rampant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50 million adults in the United States are living with it. Defined by the National Institutes of Health as any pain that lasts for more than 12 weeks, chronic pain can stem from a number of things, be it an old injury or a serious illness, or it can have no clear cause at all. One thing is certain — managing daily pain can be challenging.
Here Steven Richeimer, MD, an anesthesiologist at Keck Medicine of USC and chief of the division of pain medicine and professor of clinical anesthesiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, shares his best tips for living well with chronic pain.
1. Assemble your team.
First on the list is putting together a good pain management team. This should include a pain doctor, psychologist, physical therapist and, possibly, an occupational therapist, Dr. Richeimer advises.
You can find pain management experts at a pain center, where he recommends seeking specialty care if your pain has lasted longer than six months. There your team can help you put together the best treatment plan for you.
2. Look beyond opioids.
While opioids may be the first thing that comes to mind for managing pain, Dr. Richeimer suggests minimizing the use of them.
“There is growing evidence that opioid use can actually prolong and worsen pain,” he says.
Instead, treatment plans should incorporate non-opioid medications, along with a combination of pain management procedures (like nerve blocks or steroid injections), pain psychology or physical therapy.
3. Get active.
While chronic pain may make certain activities seem out of reach, it’s important not to give into the inclination to stay on the couch.
“Stay active, both physically and mentally,” Dr. Richeimer says.
Whether you opt for a walk around your neighborhood or plan a game night with your friends, healthy activities will help take your mind off the pain.
4. Focus on the good things.
Dr. Richeimer considers pain psychology, including stress management, an important mode of treatment for chronic pain. Part of that involves learning how to reframe your perspective.
“Don’t allow pain to be the center of your life,” he says. “Fill the center with the people and activities that you love — even if the activities need to be modified.”
This pushes pain to the periphery, ideally minimizing its impact on you.
5. Lead a healthy life.
Staying healthy isn’t limited to physical activity. Know what to incorporate and, as importantly, what not to do.
“Adopt a healthy lifestyle of diet, sleep and exercise, while avoiding alcohol and smoking,” Dr. Richeimer says.
As difficult as it is to live with chronic pain, a comprehensive pain management program can dramatically reduce suffering and help people return to their lives. Progress is also being made for future treatments — for example, researchers are exploring the use of genetic testing to predict which medication will work the best for an individual patient.
“Scientists are also looking at non-pharmacological ways to treat pain, including virtual reality,” Dr. Richeimer adds.