The good news is that more people are living longer. The bad news is that as a result, more people are also living with chronic pain, which becomes more common with age.
"There are more people over the age of 65 today than under the age of 5. This is a first in our country," says Robert Jamison, PhD, a professor in pain management, anesthesia, and psychology at Harvard Medical School. However, as people age, many of the body's systems start to break down, which can lead to persistent discomfort.
Common causes of chronic pain include anything from osteoarthritis and back pain to migraine headaches and fibromyalgia. In some people who have experienced prior nerve injuries or inflamed joints, the nerve endings keep firing even when the initial problem has resolved, says Jamison.
"It's not a psychiatric problem. It's true, it's real, but it's not a sign that something is life-threatening or progressive," he says. But this ongoing pain is something that can significantly affect quality of life.
Chronic pain can be more complex and expensive to treat than many other conditions like diabetes and cancer, says Jamison. This is the case because people experiencing persistent pain often require a lot of doctor visits and medical tests. They may also need to work with multiple health care providers to manage their condition.
"So, for a lot of reasons it's important to manage pain well," Jamison says.
But to truly keep pain under control, you'll need to not only partner with experts, but also develop strategies that you can use on your own at home. Empowering yourself to learn how to manage pain without office visits or procedures is often the most successful way to improve quality of life and decrease chronic pain.
"What people can do about it themselves can be just as important as what the doctors do," says Jamison.
Mindfulness meditation for pain
Mindfulness meditation can help people manage chronic pain. Here are the basics:
In a quiet and comfortable place, sit on a cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, or sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Sit up straight but not stiff. Let your hands rest on the tops of your thighs.
Start by bringing your attention to the sensations of your body (sight, sound, taste, touch, scent).
Next, bring your awareness to your breathing as you inhale and exhale. Pay particular attention to breathing out.
When you become distracted by thoughts and feelings (an appointment you must keep or anger at someone) silently and gently label these as thoughts, let them go, and return your focus to your breath.
Start by setting aside some time to meditate for five to 10 minutes once or twice each day. You can gradually build up to 20 minutes or even an hour. For additional tips, see the Harvard Special Health Report Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery (www.health.harvard.edu/prds).
At-home options to manage pain
The pandemic has not only magnified the importance of at-home pain management strategies, but also brought forth new options. For example, there are now numerous telemedicine options, including online support groups sponsored by pain management organizations, Internet-based mental health support programs, and pain management apps.
Using a combination of strategies can help get your pain under control. Here are some you can try.
While it seems like someone who is in pain should rest and avoid movement, this is actually the opposite of what you should do, says Jamison. Increased activity can help relieve chronic pain, so focus on what you can to be as active as possible. Try at-home exercises, such as online yoga classes, or walking. Also test out an activity tracker. It can help you increase your movement over time and to set small achievable goals that won't aggravate your condition.
Try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This psychotherapy practice can help you adopt healthier thought patterns. It's been shown to reduce pain and disability by helping people cope with pain more effectively. CBT offers a way to change your emotional response to pain, starting with the understanding that while you may be hurting, your condition isn't necessarily getting worse.
While therapists often guide people through CBT, you can also try an online CBT program, such as PainTrainer (www.painTrainer.org) or Pain Course (www.health.harvard.edu/pc), says Jamison. It can help you develop strategies to pace yourself as you move toward goals and to solve potential problems that crop up in daily life. For example, how can you manage pain when you have to leave the house to go somewhere?
Join an online support group
The pandemic forced many groups to move to a virtual format, which has proven a good option for some. Online meetings can be as helpful as those conducted in person.
"We did a study looking at a weekly pain group session. We monitored people who participated in either a virtual group or an in-person group and found that both groups did equally well in terms of getting better," says Jamison. But the remote group actually performed better on one measure. "People in the remote group were more compliant and showed up more often," he said. This is likely because people encounter fewer barriers when attending an online meeting at home than they do leaving home to attend a meeting in person. This is particularly true if they care for a child or have other responsibilities. To find a meeting or other resources, visit the American Chronic Pain Association website at www.theacpa.org.
Use support apps
There are a number of apps on the market that can help people manage different aspects of chronic pain. They can help people track certain behaviors, sleep, and mood, and whether their pain has gotten better or worse. Some apps even allow you to connect with your doctor to share information about your pain management efforts.
"It's amazing how much you can do through an app," says Jamison.
This article was published by Harvard Women's Health Watch.