Pain is considered chronic when it lasts for more than 3 months and continues after you would usually expect an injury to heal. It affects 1 in 5 Australians at some point in their lives and can be emotionally stressful as well as physically debilitating. Common conditions that often result in chronic pain include migraines, osteoporosis, arthritis, low back pain, post surgical pain, cancer, fibromyalgia and musculoskeletal injury.
Physical symptoms of chronic pain
Most sufferers of chronic pain will primarily complain not only about pain, but of changes they have noticed to their physical health. Some of the physical symptoms of chronic pain include changes to posture and movement patterns, as well as general weakness. This is commonly the result of inactivity caused by pain, or avoidance of exercise due to the misconception that it will cause more pain or damage to the body.
Other symptoms of chronic pain
Aside from physical disability, chronic pain can also have large effects on mental health and wellbeing. Often long periods of pain, no longer being able to participate in normal activities with family and friends, and financial stress from missed work and expensive appointments can contribute to feelings of stress, frustration, depression, fatigue and anxiety. These feelings, while a common and normal part of the chronic pain experience, often act to magnify pain and allow the pain cycle to continue.
Managing chronic pain
In order to manage chronic pain both physical and emotional symptoms should be addressed. Before science and technology was as advanced as it is today, a common belief was that rest was the best way to manage pain. While this is often true for many acute injuries, we now know that this often does not apply to chronic pain. Current research has shown the best way to manage chronic pain is to incorporate physical activity, exercise and enjoyable activities into your daily life.
Once you have been cleared by your physiotherapist or doctor, incorporating regular exercise through fun activities helps to restore strength, posture and normal movement patterns as well as being a useful technique to alleviate stress. Exercise has been shown to release chemicals in your brain that can act to decrease pain as well as improve overall mood. It is best to find an activity you really enjoy, such as walking around the lake with a friend or playing tennis, to get you moving.
Goal setting for chronic pain
As pain is often present while starting a new activity or exercise it can be helpful to focus on goals that are unrelated to pain. Making lots of small goals as opposed to one big goal can be a helpful way to measure your progress and keep you motivated.
When making goals, remember to keep them SMART:
Specific. What exactly do you want to achieve?
“I want to walk everyday.”
Measurable. How much or how often?
“I want to walk to the local park and back once a day, 7 days a week.”
Attainable. Is this within your abilities?
“I could walk that far before I had chronic pain and my physiotherapists agrees that with some work I will be able to again.”
Realistic. Are your expectations realistic given your current abilities and environment?
“I may not be able to do this if it rains, on those days I will walk around the shopping centre instead.”
Timely. When do you want to achieve this?
¨I will be able to walk to the local park and back once a day, 7 days a week in 4 weeks from today.¨
If you are preparing for a big event or sporting activity it can be helpful to think about the different skills you will need in order to participate. From here you can create smaller goals to use as positive stepping stones along the way. This can also be a useful way to pace yourself and makes large goals much more manageable!
When managing and goal setting for chronic pain it is important to remember that everyone is different. What worked for one person may not necessarily work for another. Your physiotherapist can help you create goals and plans according to your individual condition and abilities and help you get to where you want to be. You can also seek help from your doctor or psychologist if you are feeling overwhelmed by feelings of stress and anxiety. The best way to manage chronic pain is to take a holistic approach with the support of your family, friends and health professionals.