The biggest pain mistake I make? Trying to grin and bear it. I never met a pill-OTC or Rx-that I particularly liked. But my aches occur only now and again-whereas chronic pain, defined as lasting for at least 3 months, affects an estimated 43 million Americans. Yet experts agree that it's woefully undertreated in our country, and few doctors are aware of new advances or are trained in pain management.
One major shift in thinking is that chronic pain is now believed to be a disease, not a symptom, and that treating pain is about not simply targeting the source but treating the whole person. As with any chronic condition, there's no magic bullet, so you need to draw on a number of approaches, from exercise and medication to relaxation techniques and talk therapy. Here are five mistakes that could make your pain worse, and how to find relief:
Mistake #1: You're Trying to Tough It Out
One in four pain sufferers waits at least 6 months before seeing a doctor.
Typical reasons: downplaying the pain or thinking it'll pass on its own, according to the American Pain Society. Also, many sufferers self-treat with OTC painkillers.
Get relief: Seek treatment sooner rather than later. Studies show that the majority of injuries resolve themselves in about 4 weeks, so if yours hasn't-or if pain is affecting your ability to function-see your doctor. Waiting can wreak havoc on your body and your mind. When pain keeps you from being active, muscles weaken and shrink and joints stiffen, setting you up for further injuries.
Mistake #2: You've Seen Multiple Specialists
In our fragmented health care system, with a specialist for every ailment, it's easy to jump from one doctor to the next. But doctor hopping, experts say, can waste time and money, lead to excessive MRIs and other diagnostic tests, and delay treatment.
Get relief: Find one doctor who can be your point person to coordinate other treatments. Your primary care physician is likely the best person for this. "Just make sure you get a sense that he or she takes your pain seriously, offers you a treatment strategy, and sees you frequently enough to monitor your progress-or refer you to a specialist if your plan is not working," says Russell Portenoy, MD, chairman of the department of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
Mistake #3: You're Afraid to Exercise
It may be the last thing you feel like doing when you're hurting, but study after study shows that exercise reduces all kinds of pain. It strengthens your muscles and oils your joints, making you less likely to get reinjured. It also releases natural pain-relieving endorphins, which can boost your mood.
Get relief: Start slow and easy, especially if you've been sedentary for a few months. Do 5 or 10 minutes of walking or another low-impact activity a couple of times a day if that's all you can do. Swimming or aquatic aerobics, especially in warm water, makes it easier to move, takes pressure off joints, and reduces stiffness and pain.
Mistake #4: You're Considering Surgery
Surgery may feel like the most efficient option, but for chronic pain, the research is mixed. Studies show that operating to relieve lower-back pain without any evidence of nerve pressure, for example, may offer minimal, if any, benefit, compared with a rehabilitation program-not to mention that it comes with risks: Any surgery has a chance of making your pain worse from infection, scarring, and nerve damage.
Get relief: Opt for pain medication, physical therapy, or exercise first. To treat back pain, for example, experts recommend trying a combination of the three for at least 6 months before discussing surgical options. Many people will improve enough to either avoid or no longer be eligible for surgery, says William Abdu, MD, medical director of the Spine Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. You can also talk with your doctor about trying a shorter, more intensive rehabilitation program.
Mistake #5: You Haven't Tried Natural Remedies
If you can't take pain meds because of side effects or are just looking to enhance their effects, consider alternative treatments. Clinical studies show that acupuncture, for example, relieves osteoarthritis pain, sciatica, and lower-back problems. And according to a large review of recent research, patients who took devil's claw, white willow bark, and cayenne for lower-back pain had more relief than those who took a placebo.
Get relief: Herbal therapies are not without side effects and may interfere with other medications, so talk with your doctor before taking them. Numerous studies also show that mental techniques can help ease pain. Start with some simple relaxation techniques: Practice deep breathing and tightening and relaxing different muscles for 15 to 20 minutes every day. A therapist can help you learn other types of relaxation, such as visualization, self-hypnosis, and biofeedback-ask your doctor for a referral.
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