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7 Strategies to Live Better with Chronic Pain

By Lauren Krouse
Reviewed by Alexis Ogdie, M.D.
November 04, 2022

Every day, an estimated 50 million Americans battle chronic pain. It can be immensely difficult to persevere through pain that just won’t go away. But step one to taking your life back is empowering yourself to change what’s in your control.

Maybe your chronic pain accompanies a chronic condition, like psoriatic arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), or cancer. Maybe it’s lingered since an injury, or perhaps the source remains a mystery. No matter the cause, coping skills are essential.

What works to dial down pain can vary vastly from person to person. But insight from real people going through similar challenges could help you improve your approach. Here’s their hard-earned advice.

1. Keep a Diary of Your Symptoms

Anya Likhitha, 28, a Singapore-based freelance artist, tracks her symptoms of endometriosis, a notoriously painful gynecological condition. To do this, she uses an app to record, rate, and describe pain in different parts of her body throughout the day. Tracking has the potential to increase your awareness of what’s helping or hurting, or give you a better understanding of when it’s time to contact your doctor or care team, Anya says.

“I know it’s time to see a doctor when there is an unusual spike in my symptom score per day for a prolonged period—say, a week—and my efforts to counter the symptoms are not working,” Anya says. If you opt to track, too, consider also noting factors that could influence your pain levels, like changes in your sleep schedule and diet, she suggests.

2. Take Frequent Breaks for Rest and Rejuvenation

A common coping mechanism for chronic pain is to distract yourself by staying busy, but this can lead to burnout, says Sofie Parker, 46, a wellness expert for Inboard Skate based in Bristol, Connecticut, who lives with chronic back pain. With this in mind, Sofie makes it a point to schedule regular breaks throughout the day to rest and recharge.

“Do things that you love that can relax your body and mind,” she says. Bonding with family and friends, cuddling with her pets, and light activities like journaling and crafting help boost her mood and dial down pain.

3. Make Time for Gentle Movement

While rest is an essential piece of pain management, too much downtime may also make pain worse. Lisa Baynes, 48, a real estate agent living with psoriatic arthritis and psoriasis in Union Point, Georgia, says she’s noticed that being sedentary too long can drastically increase her pain. “As an avid cyclist and runner, staying active helps me keep chronic pain under control,” she says. “The more I move, the better I feel.”

Research also suggests that frequent movement beats sitting still for managing chronic pain, and any activity typically beats none, so long as you listen to your body to determine which activities help relieve (rather than trigger) pain.

4. Meditate to Create Space Between You and Your Pain

“I have found mindfulness meditation to be helpful with pain, as it helps you to acknowledge the pain and move through it,” says Turiya Powell, 36, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at Thriveworks, a counseling center in Cary, North Carolina, who is living with multiple sclerosis (MS).

To manage pain from MS, Turiya uses a body scan meditation to discover where her pain resides. Then, she imagines that pain as an object and herself moving away from it. Studies suggest that practices like this could help reduce pain, boost emotional health and quality of life, and ease symptoms of depression.

Anya says meditation is an important part of her toolkit, too. The point isn’t to minimize the sensations you’re feeling, but to recognize how you’ve become more sensitive to pain and learn how to manage it in a holistic way, she says.

5. Try Deep-Breathing Exercises

“When I’m in the middle of intense pain, I have observed that I take shallow breaths,” Anya says. “Consciously trying to take a few deep breaths in those moments helps me find instant mental relief despite the pain.”

This might sound too simple to actually have an impact, but many pain clinics teach diaphragmatic breathing: those deep, slow, “belly breaths.” When you’re dealing with chronic pain, it’s as if your fight-or-flight system gets stuck in panic mode. But diaphragmatic breathing can help turn it off, shifting your body into rest-and-restore mode.

Getting into a breathing rhythm can be helpful, too. In one study, subjects who breathed in paced patterns reported less intense pain when exposed to a heat stimulus than those who breathed unpaced.

6. Practice Healthy Habits

Anya says she didn’t eat well and rarely cooked for herself before her diagnosis. But since then, she’s started meal-planning to get in plenty of nutritious and anti-inflammatory foods, including leafy greens, mixed berries, beans, lentils, nut butters, olive oil, and fermented foods, like kimchi.

Research suggests that this is a smart move. A diet full of high-sugar processed foods can trigger chronic inflammation that’s been linked to chronic pain, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Lisa understands this firsthand. She says that, for her, a “sugar binge” is “almost always followed by a great deal of pain, fatigue, and gut issues.” But watching what she eats is her first line of defense against a flare-up. That’s because anti-inflammatory foods could help ease pain, according to an August 2020 article in the journal Nutrients.

For her part, Anya says it took time to change her eating habits, and she still has the occasional cheat day to keep cravings at bay. But aiming to include a handful of greens on half your plate at each meal is a good place to start. Along with the foods she suggests, add whole grains, fish, and a mix of different fruits and vegetables to the top of your grocery list.

Other healthy habits can help, too, including quitting smoking and practicing beneficial sleep habits. In a recent study, smokers with chronic pain reported higher pain intensity and effects of pain on their daily lives than nonsmokers with chronic pain did. A review of 17 studies found that people with chronic pain who also had sleep disturbances had greater levels of pain intensity and duration and that the pain affected their mental health more often.

If you’re having trouble quitting smoking, or getting a good night’s rest, consider working with your doctor to find solutions.

7. Find Support for Your Mental Health

Debbie O’Neal, 59, of Long Island, New York, developed a rare and extremely painful disorder called complex regional pain syndrome after a neck injury. Five years in, a healthcare provider noticed she was depressed and suggested that she connect with a pain psychologist.

At first, she wasn’t sure about it. But one appointment led to a 10-year therapeutic relationship that she feels she has benefitted from. “I believe we all go through a grieving process for the loss of our physical selves, though sometimes we don’t realize it,” she says. “Having a pain psychologist who is objective to talk to can make it easier.”

Counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy could help you put pain into perspective and better cope with your symptoms. Debbie recommends using a telemedicine provider to make appointments more accessible. Also, consider joining a virtual support group specific to your condition. “Knowing you’re not alone truly helps,” she says.

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