Coping with Chronic Pain: Safe Pain Management
Many people with addiction to drugs and alcohol started using substances to get relief from chronic pain — physical, emotional and psychological pain.
Pain does funny things to your brain — it is very difficult to focus on anything else when you are coping with pain. Our instinct is to make the pain go away as quickly as possible so we can function. That approach often leads to an over-reliance on pain medications, such as opioid painkillers, which cause a host of side effects and can lead to physical tolerance (requiring increasing doses to get relief) and addiction.
Once an addiction to opioid painkillers like oxycodone or hydrocodone takes hold, it is tough to break. People who also drink alcohol to take the edge off the pain raise their risk of combined drug toxicity when the substances in their system interact, which can be dangerous and life-threatening.
There has to be a better way to cope with chronic pain. Fortunately, there is! It takes a bit more effort than simply popping a pill, but can bring relief without addiction or side effects.
Safe Pain Management: Alternative Approaches, Alternative Therapies
Learning to manage pain in a safe way, without the use of powerful opiate medications, can take some adjustment. For anyone suffering with debilitating pain — whether physical, emotional or mental — transitioning to non-habit-forming pain management may mean learning to live with a low level of pain until you adjust to new approaches and alternative pain therapies to get relief.
Attitude Adjustment. One approach to managing your pain is finding ways to live with it instead of escape it — this is not the same as ignoring it, and not the same as dwelling on it. Experiencing the pain, breathing through it and exploring different ways to think about it, often with the guidance of a counselor, can help you accept and reduce your pain.
Psychological Methods. Several studies have shown that using psychological methods, including relaxation techniques, to control pain are very effective — sometimes so effective that there is no need for medication. One of these methods is guided imagery. Based on the concept that your body and mind are connected, this method involves using directed thoughts and suggestions — either from an instructor, therapist, audiotapes or scripts — to envision a pleasant place and guide your imagination toward a relaxed, focused state. Breathing exercises and mindfulness are combined for coping with pain. They involve sitting or lying in a comfortable position and observing how you feel as you breathe slowly and deeply. Based on the concept that pain management begins with observation, this method has you focus on how you are feeling in body and mind without trying to change anything. As you breathe in and out, you focus on where you feel pain, and then release it on every exhalation. Hypnosis, whether assisted or self-guided, can help you achieve a focused state of concentration and calm, usually by repeating a positive statement several times as you relax in a comfortable position.
Non-addictive medication. If medication is needed as a complementary method for controlling pain, work with your doctors to find non-opioid, non-addictive medications that provide relief. These alternative medications might include over-the-counter painkillers such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen, lidocaine lotion or patches for topical pain management, or anticonvulsants, antidepressants and antiarrhythmic medications. Some doctors can provide a regimen of vitamins and herbal supplements to treat underlying issues and reduce pain.
Alternative therapies. Several mind-body therapies can be used in conjunction with alternative medications for effective pain management, and include:
- Chiropractic treatments and/or physical therapy — People often find that a good physical therapist who gently manipulates muscles and joints can help them eradicate pain associated with physical ailments, and even help avoid surgery.
- Acupuncture — This therapy uses very fine needles to stimulate certain “acupoints” on the body, which can trigger underlying nerve fibers to send signals along the spinal cord and brain (the central nervous system) to release natural chemicals that relieve pain.
- Biofeedback — This involves the use of electrodes to measure your body functions (i.e., blood pressure, brain waves (EEG), breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, skin temperature). A therapist guides you through relaxation exercises that involve holding pleasant images in your mind that help you change and control functions that cause pain.
- Yoga — There are many forms of yoga, but the gentlest form that is also most effective for pain management is hatha, which involves moving through a series of basic body movements and poses with controlled breathing to strengthen and relax the body.
- Massage — As with yoga, there are many forms of massage. All forms involve the massage therapist pressing, rubbing, or manipulating muscles and other soft tissues with their hands and fingers, or even with their forearms, elbows or feet, as you breathe through the process and release pain and tension with every exhalation.
- Aromatherapy — Practitioners use essential oils from plants to stimulate nerves in the nose and send impulses to the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion. Depending on the type of oil, the aroma can either stimulate or relax a person, and can also trigger the body to release pain-fighting chemicals. The aromatic oils can be sprayed into the air, massaged on the skin or poured into a relaxing bath.
Self-Help: Learn New Coping Mechanisms for Pain Management
“Don’t reach for the wine bottle or the Vicodin,” you tell yourself when the wave of pain overwhelms you. Instead, practice some deep breathing and try to remain calm. Once you are in a calmer place and have minimized your pain, try one of these helpful coping tools:
- Have a cup of tea
- Call a friend
- Go for a quiet walk
- Write in a private journal to express your pain, or what triggered it
- Turn on your favorite music and sing along
- Paint or color — adult coloring books are popular because coloring is very therapeutic
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11 Chronic Pain Control Techniques. Andrew R. Block, PhD. Spine-Health, 2007.