Many battles have been fought and won, but a not a single side was ever victorious because of one soldier’s actions. Would a military leader ever send a single soldier into a battle to win it? No, and as a chronic pain sufferer, you’re in a fight against pain every day of your life. You need multiple strategies for pain management to live your life to the fullest. Think of your strategies for pain management as your soldiers. You need several of them to win in the fight against chronic pain.
As a chronic pain sufferer, I’ve tried dozens of different things to manage my pain over the years. Being diagnosed several years ago with a chronic pain condition (with others following it over the years) has led me on quite a painful journey. I hope that my experiences and what I’ve learned along the way will help you find victory in your battle against the chronic pain enemy.
Debilitating pain calls for a battalion of warriors. I’ve put together a list of some of the most effective strategies for pain management that have worked for me. Of course, everyone is different and your mileage will vary with each of these techniques, but it’s crucial that you keep searching for something that will work for you. You deserve to live a normal life and lessen your pain.
While none of what I have used has cured my chronic pain conditions (even multiple surgeries and prescription medications), I am able to participate in the land of the living when my pain is lessened…doing things like grocery shopping, keeping my house clean, and all the things people without pain do every day without giving it a second thought.
My Arsenal of Pain Management:
● Pain Relief Creams and Oils
Swollen joints from arthritis have limited my mobility and cause me a great deal of agony. You’ve probably taken oral NSAIDs, but topical NSAIDs can help decrease your pain too. Pain relief creams work best on joints close to the surface of the skin, such as the knees and the knuckles. Their effects can last for hours and some brands offer cooling relief while others use heat. Ultra Strength Ben-Gay is my go-to cream. It’s cheap, pretty effective for immediate relief of moderate pain, and easy to use. I also use Apercreme if I’m going to be in a closed space with other people to eliminate the strong smell, but it doesn’t work as well for me.
● Essential Oils
Essential oils like peppermint can offer quick, effective relief from aching muscles and joints. You’ll need to mix a few drops of essential oil with a base oil like coconut or almond oil before applying the mixture directly to the skin. I use castor oil as a base, it works better for me than traditional base oils. Frankincense, Nutmeg, and Clove essential oils also have strong anti-inflammatory properties and lessen my pain when I apply them and use a heating pad afterwards. Some essential oils like lavender can help ease anxiety, tension, and stress if your pain levels cause you to struggle with them.
● Traditional Chinese Medicine
Topical, herbal ointments like Wood Lock oil, Zheng Gu Shui, and Po Sum On (I get mine from Amazon) can offer relief from a range of chronic pain issues. The added ingredients in each are what makes them very different from other menthol and camphor products. Acupuncture has been used for centuries to alleviate headaches, back pain, joint pain, muscle aches, and many other health problems. Some insurance policies cover acupuncture; check first because it can cost an average of $100 a session if you have to pay out of pocket. The needles do not cause any bleeding or scarring, and you won’t feel them while you’re undergoing a session. It does offer some relief for moderate pain, it had no effect on my severe pain.
● Heating Pads
I love my heating pad (the extra large one). Bringing heat to aching joints and muscles improves the blood circulation to those areas. Blood carries nutrient-rich oxygen to painful areas, which can alleviate inflammation and accelerate the healing process. I also use it to help my body absorb topical oil based pain relievers much faster. Heating pads should be used for about twenty minutes at a time, no more than three times a day. I use mine for much longer because I get quite a bit of relief from it but I suggest following the manufacturer's instructions and learning what your body can tolerate, adjusting the heat level and time used accordingly.
● Ice Packs
It’s a good idea to alternate between heating pads and ice packs throughout the day. Applying cold to a swollen joint will decrease the swelling and inflammation. Getting the swelling to go down can also improve the joint’s mobility, then you can use heat to improve the circulation to the area.
● TENs Machines
TENs machines are portable devices that use electricity to stimulate irritated nerves and block pain signals from reaching the brain. You would place an electrode onto the painful area, and the machine will send small, electrical pulses into the nerve fibers. These pulses are used to disrupt and block pain signals, alleviating nerve discomfort. Some insurance companies will cover TENs machine units. I have two, a professional grade machine for particularly bad flares and a portable machine ($20 on Amazon) that I wear the most (especially when cleaning or doing other activities that usually aggravate my back). A TENS machine is one of my "stranded on a desert island" must-haves.
● Shiatsu Massagers
Shiatsu massage is a technique where pressure is applied to specific points on the body to promote energy flow and correct any imbalances in the patient’s body. Shiatsu helps relieve stress, and treat pain and illness in addition to being a relaxing experience. I'm not in it for the relaxation, I use it solely for pain relief. You can buy Shiatsu massagers for different areas of the body. I use a pillow type Shiatsu massager that also has heat for helping with my lower back pain.
● Low-impact Exercises
When you live with chronic pain, it’s crucial that you get enough low impact exercise to maintain a healthy weight and keep joints and muscles mobile. Swimming and recumbent bikes are incredibly useful ways to get physical activity. These types of exercises are low impact and won't make pain worse, but they are still effective at maintaining optimum fitness levels. I swim in the summer and use the bike all year. I put a dvd or the Hallmark channel on and time goes by pretty fast.
● Physical Therapy
Physical therapy can strengthen your muscles and joints. Guidance from a professional therapist can also help you learn better ways to move and perform your daily activities, so you don’t aggravate chronic pain. Movement dysfunction is at the core of many chronic pain issues, and a physical therapist can address this and help you find relief from your pain and discomfort. Many insurances will cover physical therapy sessions, some have pretty high co-pays so you’ll need to find out what you’ll need to pay out of pocket (and it’ll be for multiple sessions). Physical therapy was the number one reason I was able to recover quickly and get high level flexibility back after my knee replacements.
● Curcumin and Other Herbal Remedies
Curcumin or turmeric and other herbal therapies have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to alleviate arthritis pain and inflammation. Recent scientific studies have shown that these herbs do offer relief from inflammation and also improve immune system response. I use Curcumin because it’s the active compound in turmeric that fights inflammation. I use it as a tool daily, it doesn't take away all my pain, but it does seem to keep it from getting worse.
● DMARD or Plaquenil
Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or DMARDs like Plaquenil decrease swelling in arthritis patients. These drugs can prevent further joint damage and even help reduce the risk of long-term disability. I currently take Plaquenil, it reduces my severe pain days and is very well tolerated.
● New Drugs like Zorvolex
One hundred million people in the U.S. live with chronic pain conditions, and new drugs are being developed, tested and released every year. New drugs like Zorvolex and other mild muscle relaxers have helped many people manage their chronic pain. There is no generic for Zorvolex right now, and even though it helps me I wouldn’t be able to swing $350 a month for it (especially since it helps, but doesn’t take away the pain completely). Fortunately there are programs available (non-government) that allow you to get the prescription for free, check with your doctor.
For severe pain and flares, I use Kratom. It's the other "stranded on a desert island" must-have for me to be able to control my pain. An estimated five million people use kratom to control pain, according to the American Kratom Association, a kratom advocacy group. With opioids being taken away from even the most critical chronic pain patients, Kratom is a welcome alternative. Ironically, it also helps addicts come off of opioids. The debate between the FDA and scientists that support kratom as a safe pain reliever has been raging on for years. I cover this in much more detail in other posts to help battle misinformation and to provide you with the tools to make an informed decision if you decide to add it to your own arsenal. This is an excellent article that explains the politics behind it:
Many surgical techniques can help chronic pain patients find relief, especially if medications and other less invasive procedures haven’t worked for them. Knee replacements gave me the ability to walk normally again, without disabling pain. On the flip side, I have decided to avoid spinal surgery unless I absolutely have to have it to move after exhausting all other options. Surgery is a big decision, one that only you can make.
The Best Way to Manage Chronic Pain
What’s the number one strategy for managing chronic pain? It’s never giving up. You will probably have to try many different techniques, some together and some not, to find relief from your pain. What works one day may not be as effective the next, and you’ll have to rotate your strategy.
As someone who has been living and managing chronic pain for a long time, I can tell you from first-hand experience that persistence is the key to finding the right combination of pain relief methods that are going to work for you.
Always remember that you are your biggest ally in the fight against chronic pain and its limitations. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care and pain management doctors and advocate for yourself. Contact your insurance company and find out what types of therapies or medications they will cover. If you buy something and it doesn't work for you, don't throw it in a drawer and get discouraged. Return it and try something else. I'm a big fan of Amazon Prime for this reason. I've tried so many things to help relieve my pain just to find out they were useless, and promptly returned them. I've also tried a lot of different products that worked well. It's a balancing act, relieving your pain without going broke.
I created this website as a resource for other chronic pain sufferers. There are numerous articles here, and more being published every week that will showcase new and older but tried and true pain management techniques and products you can try. I also refer to organizations that fight for the humane treatment of chronic pain sufferers and can provide you with information to get the care you need if you have severe, disabling pain that doesn’t respond to treatment. Use these tools at your disposal as warriors in the fight to live a normal life with less pain every day.