7 Key Ways A Pain Diary Can Help Arthritis
Let’s not sugar-coat it: living with a chronic pain condition like arthritis is difficult. There are good days, so-so days and worse days - and it can be hard to know if and when you’ll have a flare up. Living with the uncertainty of chronic pain can feel disempowering, and it can make you feel like you don’t have any control.
There is no cure for arthritis, but there are tools you can use to manage your pain, find patterns and learn ways to deal with it more effectively. One way to help yourself manage your pain better is to keep a pain diary.
A pain diary is a simple tool that allows you to record and track your pain over time. It can help you understand your pain patterns, identify triggers and the effects of medication, and see if your symptoms improve or get worse at specific times of the day or in particular locations. It can also give you an element of control, because it helps you communicate your findings to your healthcare provider so you are more active in your treatment plans.
How to keep a pain diary
Keeping a pain diary is easy and does not take much time. There are many formats you can use to keep track of your symptoms: you could use a notebook, a diary or journal, an app or type it out on your computer. Ideally, you would update your pain diary at least once a day - preferably at a similar time so it becomes a habit - so you can really start to see patterns and trends. It’s okay to start small: why not set yourself the challenge of noting down just three things about your pain - either the absence of it or when it occured - and if you want to add more, then great!
We spoke to health coach Barbara Ford for some tips on keeping a pain diary. You should also talk to your doctor about any particular things you should be tracking.
Pain levels using a scale that is easily understood, such as 0-10 with 0 being no pain, 5 being moderate pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable
Where the pain was, and how it felt: e.g. sharp, aching, hot, cold
The activities you did in the day and how you felt in your body during and after doing them
Rest needed/taken in waking hours
Pain changes or flares
Overall the day/night was… complete the sentence with: good, bad, awful, mixed, could be better – or choose your own
You should also track positive experiences and things that helped alleviate your symptoms - or times when you didn’t experience pain or experienced minimal pain - to get a holistic idea of what does and doesn’t work for you.
You are in control of how little or often you update your pain diary, but it can be a good idea to do it at least once a day so you can consistently see patterns over time. You can use a notebook, a specific journal or an app to do this.
“Some people find it easier to use notes on their phones or to use an app,” says Ford. “Other people prefer pen and paper and some of my clients use doodles and art to describe the quality of their pain.”
So you know how to keep a pain diary, but if you need a little convincing as to why it may be a good idea then read on for 7 ways keeping a pain diary can help with arthritis.
1. It can help you measure your pain levels.
When keeping a pain diary, you may want to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10. By keeping track of your pain in this way, you can start to see trends, identify triggers and - if you find that you are experiencing severe pain quite frequently - to talk to your doctor about other options, potentially including surgery.
2. It can help you track your pain triggers.
“Discover what helps and what makes things worse,” says Ford. “Do certain actions or behaviours aggravate or soothe? Foods that help or irritate. Everything included in the list can reveal what is needed to be as comfortable as possible. One of the main eye-openers is knowing what is best restricted or avoided altogether.”
By noting down when and where your pain occurs, you can discover what factors may cause or worsen your pain. For example, you may notice that your pain is worse in the morning, after certain movements, or in cold weather. If you are taking medication, you can track whether it seems to be effective on average and, if it’s not, that gives you evidence that you can bring to your doctor so you can explore other options. It can also help you identify if there are particular foods or activities that increase your pain, so you can explore eliminating those to see if it makes a difference.
3. It can help you find your pain relief factors.
By noting down what helps or eases your pain, you can learn what works best for you. For example, you may find that applying heat, taking medication, or doing gentle exercises helps reduce your pain. This can become quite specific, so perhaps there are particular stretches that lessen pain in a certain joint, or maybe some things work for one joint and others work for another joint. Keeping a pain diary helps you narrow down specific details of your day-to-day experience so that you are really aware of both what triggers pain and what helps relieve pain, which empowers you to tailor your lifestyle to manage your arthritis as well as possible.
4. It can help you monitor your sleep quality.
By recording how well you sleep each night, you can see how sleep affects your pain and vice versa. Sleep is important for healing and recovery, so getting enough quality sleep can help you cope with your pain better. You’ve probably heard that going to sleep at roughly the same time every night and waking up at the same time each morning, limiting screen time in the evenings, avoiding harsh light at night and getting (indirect) sun in your eyes in the morning can all help improve sleep quality and how alert you feel in the morning - but keeping track of your personal experience can really solidify this and help keep you motivated to get enough sleep.
5. It can help you track the efficacy of your medication
If you’re taking pain killers or other forms of medication, keeping a pain diary can help you track how you feel on specific medications, how new medications or stopping medication impacts your pain levels and whether you are experiencing any side effects of the medication. Keeping a pain diary really helps you see daily experiences more clearly so you can have a better idea of what is having a positive and negative effect.
6. It can help you communicate your pain to others.
It can be hard to explain chronic pain to people, particularly those who don’t know what it’s like. Living with an invisible pain condition can be frustrating and it can be hard to communicate your up and down days to friends and family. You can use your pain diary to explain your pain to your family and friends and ask for their support, as well as use it to check whether you experience particular flare ups in certain situations so you can plan for them and adjust accordingly. It’s also a good idea to share your diary with your doctor, physiotherapist, or other healthcare professionals, so you can provide them with valuable information about your condition and treatment needs. It can also help you remember particular experiences if you tend to get brain fog.
7. It helps give you back some control.
By keeping a pain diary, you are taking an active role in managing your pain and improving your quality of life. You are also acknowledging and validating your experience and taking an active role in managing it. A pain diary can be a powerful tool to help you manage your arthritis better. By keeping track of your pain over time, you can gain more insight into your condition and find ways to cope with it better.
Do you keep a pain diary to monitor your arthritis? We’d love to hear how it’s working for you, let us know on Facebook.