chronic pain management

For many people with arthritis, chronic pain is a constant companion. But there are things you can do to feel better.

Many people who have some form of arthritis or a related disease may be living with chronic pain. Pain is chronic when it lasts three to six months or longer. But arthritis pain can last a lifetime. It may be constant, or it may come and go. Chronic pain can make it hard to perform daily activities like cleaning the house, dressing, or looking after your kids. However, there are ways to effectively manage chronic arthritis pain. Here is what you can do to feel better.

Take Your Medications

Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at the age of 71, Mona Gardner was active and healthy, teaching full time at a local university. One day, she woke up with terrible pain in her hands, feet, and skin.

“I never want to feel pain like that again!” says Gardner, recalling her early flares of joint inflammation. “My skin hurt. My joints all ached. I couldn’t even open the doors of my car.”

Instead of giving in to her pain, Gardner sought treatment from a rheumatologist. She began taking disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil). She also pushed herself to stay physically active and maintain a positive attitude about living with arthritis. She started the Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program and dance classes. She continues to work at the university.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs recommended by your doctor help control inflammation and pain. If you have side effects that keep you from taking your medications, or if you have trouble affording their cost, speak to your doctor. There may be other options.

Manage Your Weight and Stay Active

Steve Wallace played football for years – from high school in Chamblee, GA., to college at Auburn University in Alabama, to the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs.

“It never crossed my mind that I could get an injury that would hamper me for the rest of my life,” says multiple Super Bowl champion Wallace, now 50, who has terrible knee pain from osteoarthritis (OA)

A former offensive lineman, Wallace is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 280 pounds in his peak playing days. Now living in Atlanta, he regularly rides a stationary bicycle and does resistance training in water. Keeping his weight down with exercise and good diet helps to lower the pressure on his knees.

“Ten to 15 pounds makes a huge difference. Otherwise, I would have constant swelling in my knees.”

Excess weight can cause more pressure on the weight-bearing joints and increase pain. Plus adipose tissue (aka: fat) sends out chemical signals that increase inflammation. And being overweight is bad for your overall health, as it increases your chances for heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers. Watch what and how much you eat. Make sure you eat plenty of vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains and lean protein, such as beans, poultry, and fish. Stay away from processed foods, red meat, and sugary drinks.

In addition to helping control weight, activities like walking, water aerobics at your local gym, or yoga can help reduce joint pain and improve flexibility, balance and strength. Cardiovascular exercise, like biking on a stationary bike, also helps keep your heart in shape. If you are new to exercise, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to find out what may be best for you. With exercise, you will also feel more energetic and it can help you sleep better.

Keep a Positive Attitude

Phyllis Shlecter was an active person who played tennis four days a week and worked full-time as a teacher. At 49, she suddenly developed symptoms of RA. “My feet were swollen. I had to wear slippers because I couldn’t put shoes on. My feet doubled in size and my hands looked like monster’s hands,” recalls Shlecter, now 84 and living in Los Angeles.

Diagnosed in 1976, few treatment options were available for her. “I was told to take 10 aspirin a day and learn to live with my pain,” she says. She went back to teaching, but five years later had to retire.

After joint surgeries and rehabilitation, she used a walker and a wheelchair, and finally lost her ability to walk. Eventually, she got on the road to recovery by taking Plaquenil and NSAIDs.

“I don’t let anybody shake my hands. They have not stopped hurting in 35 years,” she says.

But Shlecter refuses to let pain keep her from enjoying life. “My rheumatologist calls me a denier. I choose to ignore the pain! I do what I can,” she says. “Everybody has their own level of tolerance.”

Despite the effects of her RA, she sticks to regular physical activity, including walking and exercising in the pool and Jacuzzi. “I have a cane and a walker in my closet – but I’m walking!” she jokes. After all the treatments, Shlecter believes that a positive attitude is the most effective weapon against arthritis pain.

Many people with chronic arthritis pain find that a positive attitude can significantly boost their ability to cope with pain. Try not to give in to pain. Find ways to keep your mind off it. Do the things you enjoy – like a hobby or spending time with family and friends – to keep your spirits high. Ask your doctor about how hypnosis, meditation and breathing techniques can help you ease your pain.

For more information about chronic pain and how to manage it, visit our Pain Toolkit and read Understanding Chronic Pain and What Causes Pain and Pain Management Tips.

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