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House Call: Coping with chronic pain

Chronic pain is something that affects about 100 million American adults. Depending on the person and the cause, the pain can occur daily, weekly or occasionally; the pain is reported as sharp, stabbing, pinching, achy or some combination of these and other descriptions. The thing that everyone who suffers from it has in common is that it may never go away.

Every health care provider’s goal for patients with chronic pain is to improve the patients’ function and reduce their pain as much as is safely possible. Treatment may involve medication, physical therapy, surgery, and other therapies. Once everything medically possible has been done, you may be wondering how to live from day to day with pain that never goes away and possibly even flares up and becomes worse intermittently.

Here’s what I have learned from my patients over the years.

Coming to terms with the knowledge that a certain amount of pain is not going to go away is invaluable. It can help you move past persistent frustration and feelings of defeat. This is not a cause for not trying new treatments and therapies to lessen or minimize your pain as they become available. You should never give up hope, but getting past the negativity associated with frustration and feelings of defeat is a common theme that helps patients cope.

Develop a set of strategies (physical and mental) that help you cope with the especially bad days. Much of the battle against chronic pain is a psychological one, so your toolkit for a flare up in your chronic pain is probably going to be different from someone else’s, even someone with the same condition. Be open to new strategies and be equally open to discarding the ones that don’t work for you.

Seek help from others. Whether you turn to friends to help you do the grocery run when you have a flare up, a counselor to help you develop your mental resiliency, or a minister for spiritual guidance as you seek ways to cope, just knowing that you have people in your life that care may help you bear the pain.

Work on living in the moment. We all make plans and think about the future, and that’s a good thing. However, it is important not to dwell on the long-term facts of your condition and let them drag you down. Learn to recognize and celebrate even the smallest improvements.

Find things to do that you love and that leave you feeling less stressed. Many patients experience their pain more acutely when they are feeling a lot of stress in their lives. They tell me that when they are thoroughly immersed in activities they especially enjoy the pain is more bearable.

It is my hope that someday chronic pain will be a thing of the past, but until then, I will continue to work with my patients and share what knowledge I have to help them cope with their daily challenges.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.