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Op/Ed | Mind and Body Over Matter: Learning to Manage Chronic Pain

Dealing with chronic pain requires you to make lasting, lifestyle changes. A mental health professional can help you determine what changes are needed and how to integrate them into your life.

By Jackie Waters, Contributor, “I am a mother of four beautiful and energetic boys. I live with my family on our three acre hobby farm in Oregon. My goals are to feed our family as much fresh and home-grown food as possible, focus on sustainability while doing so, and practice simplicity.”

People who are diagnosed with a condition that causes chronic pain must come to terms with a new reality. That means finding ways to manage a condition that has no cure. You need to cope with thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that can trigger pain. Many people turn to opioid medications, a limited solution that often has negative long-term effects. Opiates can have a powerfully addictive effect, evidenced by the well-publicized national opioid epidemic. Psychologists can help you approach the problem in ways that draw on both mental and physical resources, a healthier alternative to painkillers. Psychologists are trained to help people deal with both mental and physical problems in a more holistic manner and developing a strong mind-body connection.

Dealing with chronic pain requires you to make lasting, lifestyle changes. A mental health professional can help you determine what changes are needed and how to integrate them into your life. In many cases, psychotherapy helps relieve chronic pain as effectively as surgery, a fact that many male and female athletes have discovered and learned to take advantage of quite successfully. A mental health professional can show how to make real changes in the way your mind processes pain through cognitive and behavioral techniques.

Meditative pain management

Stress, in its many forms, triggers a pain response within the body that produces muscle spasms and tension, which aggravate your condition. Meditative exercises are often quite effective at keeping stress and its consequent physiological impact under control, bypassing the brain’s opioid receptors and controlling pain through the combined power of concentrated thought and relaxation. Recent studies have found that mindful meditation, which focuses on one’s breathing and blocking out external environmental factors, can help significantly in managing chronic pain. Meditative exercises gradually bring about a relaxation of established brain patterns that become ingrained over time and mitigate the severity of pain.

One particularly effective technique teaches subjects to focus their thoughts on body parts and on the body’s response to stimuli. Biofeedback can also help in the management of bodily functions and responses. Sensors affixed to the skin measure stress reactions through changes in blood pressure, brain activity, and heart rate. The subject can watch a computer display that shows the body reacting in positive ways. As such, biofeedback can indicate which techniques work best. Massage therapy is another increasingly popular and low-impact alternative to more traditional means of pain control (the average cost of a massage is $60 an hour). Cryotherapy and IV treatments have also proven helpful in many cases.

Lifestyle strategies

The way you live and the habits you follow have a lot to do with how successfully you manage pain. Quite often, individuals who struggle with chronic pain don’t exercise, eat right, or get enough sleep, seemingly simple matters that have a massive impact on one’s health. Aerobic exercise works your muscles and elevates your heart rate. It also releases neurotransmitters called endorphins, which induce feelings of pleasure and well-being that mask pain. According to research, at least 30 minutes of low-impact aerobic activity can help reduce pain levels.

Getting enough sleep is also an essential component of chronic pain management. When you’re well-rested, you feel positive and have the energy necessary to cope with pain. Seven to nine hours a night is generally considered optimal, though some people have a hard time getting to sleep. Remember that some medications have a stimulating effect and should be taken several hours before you go to bed. Try meditating, reading, or listening to music before bed. Watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, and limit or eliminate naps during the day.

Also, take a hard look at the household cleaners you’re using and considering switching to products that are more green- and eco-friendly, as harsh chemicals can often trigger flare-ups. Or find alternatives that you can create using items you already have around the house. Another way to reduce your pain is to hire a service to come in to clean your home so you don’t have to do the work yourself (just make sure they’re using eco-friendly cleaners). Maid services in Boca Raton [for example] charge between $92 and $189, so make sure you can bear the expense.

A broader context

Addiction is often the outcome of pain management treatments, and it’s important to recognize the warning signs of prescription drug abuse. It’s also important to see chronic pain management in a far broader context than the prescription of painkillers. Fortunately, the growing trend toward a healthy mind-body approach has shown great promise in controlling pain. By working with a mental health professional, meditating, exercising, and getting enough sleep, you’ll find it’s possible to manage your chronic pain.

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