Did you know certain factors can increase your sensitivity to pain and worsen chronic pain? Read to learn more about steps you can take to support pain relief.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 50 million adults in the U.S. live with chronic pain. This is an extraordinary number of people shouldering the burden of pain ranging from mild to severe on a daily basis. And while we can’t choose whether we have chronic pain or not, there are ways we can work to lessen its intensity.
A note before we dive in. Just because there are ways to manage and improve our experience of chronic pain does not mean it is a choice. It is not your fault. But if you choose, there are ways you can support elevated wellness throughout your life to reduce the effects of chronic pain and cultivate more personal freedom and joy.
Pain is Unique to Each of Us
Pain feels different for each of us. Two people can have the same injury or underlying condition and live through two completely different experiences of pain. This is because pain isn’t just dependent on an injury or sensory components – it’s a subjective experience, influenced by many factors — genetic, emotional, mental, and physical.
Our childhood experiences, genes, cultural attitudes, and gender all contribute to how we perceive and respond to pain. This is great news because while we may be unable to fix an injury or condition and resolve all pain, it means we can manage and adjust how we think and feel about our pain. By managing how we think and feel about our pain, we can affect how much power and influence it holds in our lives.
What is Pain?
Fundamentally, pain is the experience of a signal intended to tell your brain, “something’s wrong.” For instance, if you burn yourself on the stove, alerts are immediately sent through your nervous system to your brain, which prompts you to remove your hand from the source of danger.
With chronic pain, pain signals are sent to the brain regardless of whether there’s any danger present. Chronic pain can be triggered by:
Repetitive stress injuries
Underlying disease or illness
Lifestyle factors (e.g., diet, sleep, physical activity) that increase stress on the body
Now, let’s look at 7 factors that can influence chronic pain and how you can use them to your advantage.
7 Holistic Lifestyle Changes to Support Chronic Pain Relief
#1 Adopt a Resilient Mindset
Research suggests that how we react to our pain can significantly impact how it affects us, either magnifying or lessening its effects. For instance, one study found that negative expectations completely reversed the positive, pain-relieving effects of opioid meditation.
Other studies have shown how effective tactics like distraction can be and how cognitive states like empathy can downregulate pain. For example, Johns Hopkins University Neuroscience professor David Linden found that positive emotions like safety, calm, and support can reduce the emotional impact of pain.
In other words — negative emotions worsen pain while positive emotions often improve it.
Your Tip: Practice mindfulness and cultivate inner peace to train your mind’s ability to react calmly and thoughtfully when pain flares up, so as not to worsen, extend, or exacerbate it.
#2 Embrace Mental Health
After analyzing the data from over 161,000 people with osteoarthritis or chronic pain, Mental Health America found that roughly 79% were positive for moderate to severe mental health conditions like depression. Further data shows that poor mental health can worsen the experience of chronic pain, just as much as chronic pain can worsen mental health.
For instance, neuroimaging of the brains of people with depression when experiencing pain revealed issues with emotional regulation that worsened the pain.
Your Tip: Don’t wait to work on your mental health — take action today! You can start by noticing when your thoughts aren’t kind or supportive and rewriting them with more positive narratives. It’s okay if you don’t believe them at first. Just start treating yourself with kindness, and be open to exploring what you need to feel mentally strong.
#3 Work on Overlapping Chronic Diseases or Conditions
Overlapping chronic diseases and conditions take a toll on your body. Aside from causing their own pain, these conditions can also worsen pre-existing chronic pain. For instance, research shows that up to a third of people with coronary heart disease also experience chronic pain. Additionally, statistics reveal that people with severe chronic pain are at three times higher risk of death from respiratory or ischaemic heart disease.
Action Tip: While it can feel daunting and is easier said than done, begin doing what you can to turn the tide on your health. If you’re struggling with overlapping conditions, don’t wait to make changes. Begin with something small today. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect. Every day gives you a fresh opportunity to implement healthy habits that will support your overall health.
#4 Movement is Medicine
Physical activity has been found to improve our physical, mental, and emotional health. For example, the U.S. Department of Health Services reports that symptoms of anxiety and depression often improve in the presence of physical activity, alongside self-esteem, confidence, and potential.
Beyond the general benefits of movement, a review of 226 studies with 19,642 patients with chronic pain found that exercise was linked with reduced pain severity, improved physical function, and elevated psychological function and quality of life.
Action Tip: Make sure you’re moving through your days. You don’t have to do much — the general recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, which you can break down into 30 minutes over five days, and further into two 15-minute sessions a day. While it can be tough to move with chronic pain, do what you can and listen to your body. If you’re in pain, stop and do what feels right.
#5 Consider Whether Weight Loss Could Help
We know – you’re probably tired of hearing this one. Studies confirm that losing weight — even just 5% of your total body weight — can positively affect chronic pain. Specifically with osteoarthritis, taking off even a few pounds can significantly reduce the pressure and stress on your joints.
Weight loss can also positively impact OA chronic pain through the hormone leptin. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat and other cells and is responsible for the feeling of fullness after eating. It also affects our mood, motivation, energy levels, and even immune system.
Research has found that people with osteoarthritis often have much higher levels of leptin in their joints, which triggers the release of inflammatory cytokines that can worsen OA.
Action Step: The good news is that because leptin comes from fat, the more fat we lose, the less leptin and inflammation we produce!
Of course, we know this is easier said than done. It can be frustrating to hear “just lose some weight” over and over again. Focus on small steps to get started.
You can begin by upping your protein intake, which can help reduce hunger while providing vital nutrients to your body. Also, exercises like resistance training can help increase your metabolism and jumpstart weight loss.
#5 Focus on Nutrition that Nourishes You
Beyond its impact on weight loss, nutrition can have a big impact on our wellness and experience of pain. Many foods have been well-researched for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can positively impact chronic pain from diseases like arthritis.
Action Tip: Prioritize foods like dark leafy greens, green vegetables, and colorful fruits and vegetables packed with powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Add in supplements with omega-3s to ensure you’re getting enough healthy fatty acids to help fight inflammation and support chronic pain relief.
#6 Avoid Alcohol and Smoking
Reports of pain tend to be higher among populations that smoke, and there is some evidence that smoking can worsen the experience of pain. Additionally, while many may self-medicate with alcohol, evidence suggests that alcohol often only helps with pain when it exceeds recommended doses. Withdrawal from alcohol use can also increase the severity of chronic pain.
Action Tip: Choose whatever is reasonable for where you are in your healing journey. You can try cutting back first. Or you may prefer to stop completely. (We recommend you consider working with a professional who can help ensure your safety during this process if you choose to go cold turkey.) Or, you may begin by identifying the root of your substance use and adopting different coping habits. Whatever you choose — have patience with yourself.
#7 Prioritize High-Quality Sleep
Sleep is much more important than many of us realize! According to The Sleep Foundation, roughly one in four people with chronic pain struggle to get consistent, high-quality sleep. One 17-year survey even found that interrupted sleep was linked with the onset of chronic pain and persistence of pain.
Of course, getting better sleep when you have chronic pain is easier said than done. Chronic pain can make it nearly impossible to find a sleeping position that doesn’t hurt, with random flares of pain preventing us from sleeping soundly through the night. Even so, trying our best to get a quality 7-9 hours can make a world of difference.
Action Tip: Try practicing mindfulness techniques like mindful breathing or meditation to help train your brain to remain calm, clear, and undistracted as you attempt to drift off. Building good sleep hygiene through consistent morning and evening routines can also help make it easier to fall asleep and wake up every day.