According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 20% of adults (over 51 million) in the United States live with chronic pain. And more than 17 million people have chronic pain severe enough to limit their life activities substantially. While there are no easy solutions to this problem, there are several ways to use mindfulness for chronic pain as well as other coping techniques. Here is what you need to know.
Understanding chronic pain
Chronic pain can be incredibly frustrating because it is often difficult to pinpoint. A phenomenon known as central sensitization causes gradual changes to the parts of the nervous system that carry pain sensations. This can worsen the pain and make it tough to determine exactly where it originates. So, the first step is for you and your doctor to use testing and other clues to determine what’s causing the pain.
But, chronic pain is highly subjective. No amount of testing can determine your pain level. The best you can do is rate your individual experience on a 1-10 scale. And seemingly unrelated factors can cause pain flares, from lack of sleep to anxiety to getting too much or not enough exercise.
Using mindfulness for chronic pain
Mindfulness is the art of remaining in the present moment. Many people with chronic pain spend time ruminating or worrying about the future or simply tuning into the painful parts of their bodies. Mindfulness helps to shift your focus to the world around you, showing you how to manage your symptoms one moment at a time.
Find your joy
Joy is a powerful emotion that can genuinely impact your perception. No matter how much pain you’re in, there is always something that sparks real joy. Make it a habit to do at least one daily thing that brings you joy.
Shift your perspective
Chronic pain makes it easy to get stuck in negative thought patterns, especially about activities that no longer seem possible. Try flipping the script. Ask yourself, “What CAN I do?” Focus on the things you can do within your current limitations, and don’t be afraid to try new activities. You might find a hobby that you never thought about before.
And within any limitations your doctor imposes, don’t be afraid to try things you loved before. As a wise health psychologist once said to a person with chronic pain whose doctor had assured him that physical activity wouldn’t cause further injury, “Sometimes you’re going to do something, and it’s going to hurt. But it will be so worth it!”
Other tips for minimizing chronic pain
Fortunately, some specific tips and techniques can help lower chronic pain levels, regardless of the root cause. Note that every situation is unique, and working closely with your doctor through every step of the journey is important. You may also need to go through trial and error to see what works for you.
Utilize the latest treatment protocols
Pain management is a rapidly evolving field, so checking in regularly with your doctor about potential treatment options is essential. Steroid injections, radiofrequency ablations, and even dry needling are just a few protocols that can bring relief to some patients. These techniques are far less invasive than surgery, and most people are back on their feet within a day or two.
Develop a daily movement routine
At one time, doctors prescribed a lot of bed rest. But now we know that movement is almost always appropriate and helpful, regardless of the underlying condition. However, the specifics of your medical condition could mean that certain activities are off-limits or should be kept to a minimum. Work closely with your doctor or physical therapist to develop a daily routine that strengthens your muscles and joints without worsening your condition.