“Chronic pain” is pain that lasts for 12 weeks or more. The cause is usually nervous system misfiring, like a faulty car alarm system. Often there is no specific trigger, which makes treatment difficult.
Chronic pain is common, affecting 50%–66% of adults age 50 and older. Opioid drugs are recommended for pain control in life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. For those with chronic pain, however, a mix of pain relief strategies is better.
With chronic pain, a full recovery to “no pain” may not be realistic. Instead, it’s a matter of finding ways to help your loved one adjust so he or she can continue activities that bring meaning to life despite the pain.
Pain is physical, and the experience of pain can be reduced with physical changes. Pain is also highly affected by mental perception. In other words, how negatively we think about it. These two qualities open the door for many nondrug strategies of pain management. For instance:
- Physical therapy. Exercises to gain strength and flexibility can improve overall comfort.
- Occupational therapy. Learning new ways to accomplish daily tasks may reduce pain.
- Exercise. Low-impact physical activity—walking, swimming—releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer.
- Quality sleep. Lack of sleep makes pain worse. Good rest supports resilient coping with pain.
- Relaxation techniques. Special techniques can train the mind and body to interrupt the pain cycle (in which pain triggers fear and tension, which brings more pain).
- Meditation. Mindfulness practice can help your loved cope by “seeing” the pain from a new perspective.
- Counseling. Counseling can help your relative identify and change the thoughts, feelings, and actions that amplify pain. Cognitive behavioral therapy is often the most helpful. It can also address depression and anxiety, which then lowers pain.