Docs are learning that when it comes to treating chronic pain, which is defined as pain lasting more than 12 weeks that is often rooted in injury or disease, a total-body approach is the way to go. “Chronic pain has such an immense impact on the person suffering its effects that it dramatically magnifies any preexisting psychological disorders,” says Michael Stanton-Hicks, MD, vice chairman of the Anesthesiology Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Pain Management. “For example, anger, sadness, anxiety or other stress is certain to amplify the pain level exponentially in a manner similar to cranking up the volume on a hi-fi system until the sound is distorted.” And certain mental conditions, such as depression, can trigger symptoms of chronic pain. “We must engage the mind and the body in order to heal, which means finding a doctor or pain management team who can provide a comprehensive approach and provide better care in the long run,” says Teresa Dews, MD, vice chairwoman of the Cleveland Clinic’s Pain Management Department. Here, 10 mind-body tips for what you can do to start feeling better.
If you suffer from chronic pain, you’ve probably wished you could close your eyes and make the aches go away. Though it’s not quite as simple as waving a magic wand, research shows you may be able to think some of that pain away. Several studies have shown that people who meditate regularly have a higher tolerance for discomfort. Even though they still feel the pain, their brain processes the sensation differently so it doesn’t hurt them as much. Meditation is a skill that takes patience and practice. To start, sign up for a local class or download the Cleveland Clinic Wellness guided meditation iPhone app. Try to sit for at least a few minutes every day until you’ve built your way up to 30 minutes or more a day.
2) Practice Your Downward-Facing Dog
If you’re suffering from chronic pain, you might think that relief is out of reach. But research suggests that people with conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis can alleviate pain and the emotional distress it causes by hitting the yoga mat. According to the researchers, gentle forms of yoga promote deep relaxation by pacifying the sympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, lowers the heart rate and promotes slow breathing. This part of the nervous system is also linked to the fight-or-flight stress response; when it’s overstimulated, it pumps out adrenaline and can lead to increased sweating, heart rate and blood pressure. Over the course of eight weeks, not only did participants feel better psychologically, they also reported major reductions in pain. If you’re interested in giving yoga a try, choose a gentle type like hatha and look for a class that caters to people with injuries or chronic conditions. Always talk to your doctor before beginning any new workout program.
3) Do What You Love
Are you taking care of your emotional health? When we neglect our feelings, we often feel it in our body, in the form of an upset stomach, body aches, and exhaustion or heart palpitations. When we’re embarrassed, we might blush; when we’re angry, we grow tense or feel our heart pound. These are examples of the mind-body connection. Holding on to negative emotions can take a toll on our health. Depression, long-term stress and anxiety can all wear us down and compromise our immune system, making us susceptible to colds and other infections. If we’re tense, we clench our muscles, often without even realizing it. This can lead to back, shoulder or neck pain. That’s why it’s important to cope with our emotions in healthy ways. Exercise, deep breathing, meditation, yoga and other mind-body workouts can help fortify our emotional well-being and reduce our body’s reaction to stress. Choose an activity you enjoy, and make time for it every day.
4) Splurge On Massages
Massages don’t just feel good — they may be good for you. A recent study found that weekly massages were more effective than standard medical care at alleviating lower back pain. Standard care includes painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants and physical therapy. The type of massage didn’t matter; patients who received relaxing Swedish massages got just as much relief as those who were given structural massages — a deep-tissue technique used to realign the bones and muscles. At the end of 10 weeks, those receiving massages spent fewer days in bed, used fewer anti-inflammatories and engaged in more activity than the standard-care group. They also reported improved function and less back pain. If you’re troubled by back pain that isn’t getting better, using massage as an adjunct therapy may help.
5) Foster Close Relationships
How you relate to others may predict what kind of health problems you’ll face later in life, according to a study in the journal Health Psychology. While people who have intimacy issues are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, those who are insecure, clingy or anxious in the relationships are at even greater risk of chronic pain, as well as cardiovascular issues, like stroke, heart attack and high blood pressure. This study provides further evidence that the mind and body are intrinsically connected. While more research is needed, it’s quite plausible that taking care of your emotional health — by reducing stress, dealing with depression and establishing close relationships — may even prevent physical ailments.
6) Look for the Good In Others
Kindheartedness can go a long way toward helping people feel better. Research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that good intentions can soothe pain, increase pleasure and even make food taste better. For instance, the study found that a batch of cookies tasted more delicious when people believed they were made with love. Likewise, a nurse’s tender loving care made patients feel less pain. Extend good feelings to others by showering them with compassion. According to the researcher, believing in the benevolence of others can also help us take more pleasure in many everyday gestures.
7) Think Positively
A positive outlook can do wonders for your health. How you choose to remember things affects how you view the present and the future. People with negative impressions of their past tend to be pessimistic about current events as well. This kind of fatalistic attitude can take a toll on personal relationships and make it difficult to put forth an effort in day-to-day activities. Research shows that people with a negative impression of their past perceive greater bodily pain and are more likely to become ill than those who look back fondly. Conversely, people who have positive emotions about the past are able to learn from past experiences and focus on future goals. The next time you take a walk down memory lane, try to reframe situations in a positive light and ask yourself how a difficult experience might help you in the future.
8) Let Go of Anger
Feeling ticked off by just about everything these days? More than depression or anxiety, bottled-up anger is one of the biggest causes of headaches. Letting your hostility fester can do a lot more than cause body tension; it may even lead to premature heart disease. However, getting things off your chest by way of an angry outburst isn’t always the best reaction either. Instead, when you feel your fuse getting short, remove yourself from the situation, if possible, and breathe deeply to calm your body down. Acknowledge your feelings and identify the reasons why you’re upset. Try to let go of things that are beyond your control, and accept that some things in life are simply unfair. Instead of assuming others are out to get you, give people the benefit of the doubt. Have compassion for them, and ask yourself if perhaps they just don’t know any better. Above all, learn how to forgive; make that conscious choice to not hold a grudge. It will help you control your temper — and your headaches.
9) Sit Up Straight
If you spend several hours a day at your computer, maintaining a proper workstation layout and practicing good posture can help minimize the risk of injuries, aches and pains. Use these ergonomic tips to help your body assume a neutral, strain-free position: Sit upright — no hunching or slouching — with your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Your back should be fully supported by your seat, with lumbar support. Keep your shoulders relaxed, allowing your upper arms to hang naturally. Your elbows should be close to the body and bent between 90 and 120 degrees. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor, and your knees should be close to the same height as your hips. Keep your monitor about an arm’s length away; the top of the screen should be eye level, so that you can read it without craning your neck up or down. Also, be sure to stand up and walk around several times an hour to allow your body to stretch.
10) Get A Good Laugh
Chronic pain got you down? Make a date with a funny friend, rent a sidesplitting movie or go see some stand-up at your local comedy club. Laughing can help take the edge off your discomfort. But polite titters won’t cut it. To get the soothing benefits, your laugh should be hearty and unrestrained. And the longer you laugh, the higher your pain tolerance. Researchers found that cracking up for just 15 minutes decreased distress by 10 percent. The reason: Laughing releases endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that give you a buzz during exercise. Not only do the brain chemicals boost mood, they also bust pain. Consider them your body’s natural source of morphine. That’s why exercise can also be a great remedy for people who suffer from chronic pain. Find a workout buddy who makes you howl and you’ve got yourself a double-whammy weapon against pain.