7 Tips for Understanding and Managing The Pain Of Arthritis
We don’t need to tell you that living with a painful health condition like arthritis is difficult. To make things worse the cause of the pain is invisible, so you have to keep explaining - and sometimes even feel like you’re having to justify - your very real experience of pain.
You may be wondering why you need tips for understanding the pain of arthritis - because who could understand it better than someone living with this condition? This article isn’t trying to lecture you about your own pain, but rather to help you understand the different types of arthritic pain so you can better explain it to doctors, friends and family, and so you feel more empowered to advocate for your needs.
1. Understand the difference between acute and chronic pain
Acute pain happens quickly and is often the result of an injury. Once the cause of the acute pain has been solved, it typically goes away within a few hours, days or weeks. Acute pain often shows us when something is wrong that needs our attention. The symptoms of acute pain often respond well to pain medication.
Chronic pain, on the other hand, lasts longer than six months and can sometimes last for years without going away. There isn’t always an obvious cause for the pain, it can be harder to treat and doesn’t always respond to pain medication.
People living with arthritis can experience both acute and chronic pain. It's important to speak to your doctor and discuss what you're feeling and crucially when you're feeling it. This can help better understand and manage the pain.
2. The RICE Method for acute pain
Many healthcare professionals use 'RICE' when referring to acute pain which may be of help to better understand.
RICE stands for:
R stands for rest and relaxation – try to rest the joint for a few days until the flare-up subsides.
I stands for ice. You may find that an ice pack wrapped in a tea-towel can help reduce the inflammation surrounding the joint. However, some people find heat or a combination of both to be more beneficial. It depends on what works best for you.
C stands for compression. Sometimes a joint will feel more comfortable if it is supported. Use a lightweight stretchy support and don’t keep it on for long periods.
E stands for elevation. If your pain is from the leg or hip it can sometimes feel more comfortable to raise the leg on a stool when you are sitting down. Again, it is a matter of trial and error to find what works for you. Little and often is the key.
3. Learn how to talk about chronic pain
Living with daily pain can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety. This in turn can, unfortunately, lead to increase in pain and finding it hard to enjoy the things in life that bring you happiness.
Chronic pain can be difficult to manage because it can make you feel overwhelmed, make it harder to do the things you enjoy and have a negative impact on so many areas of your life. It can also feel difficult to explain to people who don’t have a chronic pain condition.
When talking about chronic pain, try to explain how it feels. Is it sharp or dull? Does it feel like anything someone might have experienced in another context? Does it get worse in the morning or at night? Does it come and go or is it constant? Expressing your unique experience of pain - and explaining what can trigger it or help with it - can make it easier for other people to understand.
Living with chronic pain can feel like a vicious cycle, but there are ways to break it and make your pain more manageable.
4. Do more exercise
We know it sounds counterintuitive, and that the last thing you’ll want to do when you have arthritis is to exercise, but it really can make a positive difference to your pain levels and in other areas of your life.
Exercise, even mild exercise, releases hormones called endorphins into the body. These are essentially natural 'feel good' hormones that can help lift our mood and energy levels. Exercise is a great way of releasing these chemicals. Furthermore, exercise can help strengthen muscles around painful joints as well as increase blood flow to bring essential nutrients to joints.
5. Relax and learn how to meditate
Stress can make the pain of arthritis worse, because when your body is stressed it releases chemicals that can trigger inflammation and pain. Stress also makes you more prone to infection, because a body that is dealing with stress has a reduced ability to fight off antigens.
When living with the pain of arthritis you can find muscles around the body begin to tense, making them more painful to move. By learning to relax muscle tension in the body we can help to manage this. The internet and books are a great resource to find methods of relaxation and meditation that can help you achieve this.
6. Control your breathing
You might not notice it but when living with pain we tense up and this can in turn lead to shallow breathing. It might feel like it helps in the short term but in the long run it can lead to further pain. Breathing is something we take for granted because it's something we do without thinking about it, but learning to breath properly can greatly help manage pain. Try breathing deeply from your diaphragm to help lessen pain. Things like Tai Chi, Pilates and Alexander Technique classes can help you regulate your breathing.
Deep breathing (where you can feel your stomach expand and release) is an important part of many meditation and mindfulness practices, as well as a tool you can use to improve your mental health. Try breathing in for a count of 4, hold your breath at the top, and release for a count of 4, waiting a moment before repeating the process.
7. Improve your sleep pattern
Poor or lack of sleep has been shown to increase pain levels. So getting a good night's sleep with arthritis is key.
If you have trouble sleeping, try winding down earlier on, consider reading a book rather than bingeing a series, and try to keep your bedroom dark without any unnatural blue light from devices. It’s also a good idea to try to sleep at the same time every day, so your body naturally learns when it’s time for bed. Or try following these Sleep Tips for Arthritis to see if they could help.
What are your tips for understanding and managing the pain of arthritis? Let us know on Facebook.