My Chronic Pain Toolkit

In my previous post, I wrote about how acceptance has helped me let go of some difficult emotions and focus my energy towards more constructive things. A major part of this process was learning how to take care of myself and my new needs – how to cope with and manage my pain.

When I first heard the words coping mechanism and pain management, I felt like I was just being told to, “suck it up and deal with it”. I know it is not easy to be told that you are going to have to learn to live with your pain. If you are anything like I was when I was younger, you are probably rolling your eyes at this statement, but I ask you to please hear me out.

I titled this post “My Chronic Pain Tool Kit”, because I want to list out and explain some practical examples of how I have learned to co-exist with my pain.

They are not cures, and they won’t work for every body – and even if they do work for you, they may not work every time. But it is comforting for me to know that I have options to try, so I wanted to share some of the tools I use here. Over time, I have built a repertoire of things to try. I have become quite good at knowing what I need in each situation, and when it is simply time to brace myself for the pain that is coming on.

I would like to clarify what I mean when I use the words “coping and pain management”, because I never felt like anyone really laid them out for me. When I say pain management, I am talking about the things I do to directly lessen my physical experience of pain. These are things like wearing comfy clothing, pacing myself, ice and heat packs, and so on. When I say coping, I am talking about the things I do to mentally and emotionally deal with the things I cannot change. The things I do to find peace amidst difficult situations and pain. These are things like having an outlet to express myself, using healthy distractions, accessing my support system, breathing and mindfulness exercises, and so on. It is usually some combination of these things that help me maintain my quality of life.

When I am coping and managing better, I feel better overall. I feel more resilient, I feel happier, and more in control.

When I am in a good headspace, I am better able to function and participate in life. I find going to school more tolerable, I have more energy to socialize or spend with my family, or participate in other activities. The more I am able to participate in my life, and I am busy, the less my pain affects me. This does not always mean my pain is less, but sometimes it does. Sometimes it just means that I am able to be happy and engaged in my life, despite my pain. The less my pain affects me, the better I can cope and manage, and the cycle continues.

However, sometimes an intense wave of pain, or even a completely unrelated life event, can set me back in my progress. When this happens, I try my best to approach myself with compassion. I try not to beat myself up for having a hard time, because I know it is valid. It simply means it is time to go through my chronic pain tool kit and see if there is something that can help.

My chronic pain tool kit:

  • Heat or ice: I like to use heat and/or ice to help immediately relieve some of my pain. Just bringing a different sensation to my body can be helpful. Sometimes they are only helpful while I am applying the ice or heat, and sometimes they can even help me feel better for a while after.
  • Massage tools/self-massage/massage: Sometimes when I am in a lot of pain, I simply do not want to be touched. Other times my muscles feel so tight and cramped up, that a massage is exactly what I need. I use a massage ball to get points I cannot reach, however sometimes I simply do a bit of self-massage, or schedule an appointment with a massage therapist.
  • Back scratches: I use back scratches in a similar way that I do ice/heat or massage. Sometimes I find that the sensation of scratching my back gently on the surface can help draw my attention away from the pain that I am feeling more deeply.
  • Comfortable clothing: Comfortable clothing may not sound like it would make a huge difference, but it often does for me. Especially when I am in a lot of pain and I have a lot of things to get done, wearing clothes that are loose fitting or stretchy can help keep me as comfortable as possible.
  • Essential oil: I use a peppermint essential oil roller ball, that is meant to be applied around the head like a “halo” to help with headache/migraine pain. It brings a relieving minty-cool sensation to the area, which I find helps a lot. I use it all over my body, not just my head, to help manage pain. It is of course temporary relief, but still a great tool to have. I also love that it is small so I can easily throw it in my bag!
  • Take a cold shower: Often times I wake up feeling fatigued, groggy or foggy . I find that a cold shower can help wake me up and make me feel more “alive” and cognizant. I am not always in the mood to be drenched in cold water, but when I need it, a cold shower can certainly be a help.
  • Stretching/yoga poses: Over the years I have learned a lot of stretches and yoga poses through sports, and also through my attempts to manage my pain. Sometimes when I am in pain, I do not want to move at all. However, I find that getting up and stretching some of the areas of my body that hold lots of tension can help me feel more ready to move and go about other tasks. I also really like restorative yoga poses like “legs up the wall” in combination with calm breathing to help me calm down, check in with myself, or just relax.
  • Switch positions: This one sounds pretty straight forward, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I have a hard time sitting/standing/laying in any one position for a prolonged amount of time. This is why I am often switching my position around.
  • Get up and walk: This one is really important in scenarios where I am expected to sit for a long time like school, long car rides, travelling, and so on. Sometimes simply getting up, taking a couple minutes or even longer to just walk around can help.
  • Exercise: I know that exercise can be a controversial piece of advice that people with chronic pain receive. I understand completely that exercise can be a trigger for many people with chronic pain, and sometimes it is for me as well. But I also find that if I am feeling really stiff or sore, just a quick jog or a 10-minute workout to focus on, and loosen up my body can help. More times than not, I finish my workout feeling better and stronger than before, and glad that I decided to do it. This being said, I am usually good at judging when a workout is exactly what I need, and when it is not. It is a bit of trial and error.
  • Support brace: This was something that I was prescribed during the more acute stage of my pain. I understand the risks of support braces in the long term, and that it is crucial not to over use them – at the risk of causing my body to be even more weak than it was to begin with. All of this being said, I do keep my brace so that I can use it once in a while. I probably only use it a handful of times a year, but sometimes there are days where the extra support helps me get through a long/painful day.
  • Sleep with a body pillow: I don’t always use my body pillow, but it is a great tool to help find an optimal sleeping position.
  • Watching tv: I use tv as a distraction when I am having a really bad pain day. Watching something funny or light can help cheer me up when I am feeling down, or just get my mind off of my pain, even momentarily.
  • Listening to a podcast/music: Podcasts and music are great distractions, especially if I have a bad headache and do not want to be looking at a screen. They are also great for helping me sleep. I find they offer enough distraction to allow my thoughts to slow, but not too much stimulation so that I end up wide awake.
  • Reading: Reading is also a great, healthy distraction. I like to read books about meditation or other interesting ideas. Doing this can help distract me from my pain, give me new ideas and thoughts to focus on, and there is an added bonus of expanding my world view in the process!
  • Call a friend: Another simple tool, not to be overlooked! Sometimes I get episodes of pain that keep me home a lot. This can leave me feeling a little socially isolated, and in need of interaction. Calling a friend and just catching up on what’s been going on outside of the bubble of my bedroom is nice. Sometimes even if I’m not feeling particularly isolated, but I’m in a lot of pain, talking to a friend can just help cheer me up and give me something else to focus on.
  • Write: Writing has been a major coping mechanism for me, and part of what lead to the writing of this blog series. When I am having a lot of repetitive negative thoughts, or I am stuck in a rut, I find it very helpful to just write about how I feel. Finding the words to explain difficult feelings can help liberate me from some of their weight. Once I have allowed myself to feel sad, or mad, or defeated, I feel more free to feel other, happier things. Another bonus of writing about my feelings, is that I am free to be very truthful about hard feelings without judgement from others. I can write things that I am still too afraid to say out loud.
  • Mindfulness/breathing: Taking the time to do a guided mindfulness meditation on my phone when I am feeling overwhelmed can be so helpful in calming down, feeling grounded, and taking a step back from my worries. It is important to understand that mindfulness requires patience and practice. Some days, it is more effective than others, but it is a good tool that can be used pretty much anywhere.
  • Write out a plan about how to get everything done: This is something that I do when I am in a rut, I am overwhelmed by pain, and the things I have to get done. Sometimes simply sitting down to list out everything I need to do, assessing my needs and what I am going to do to help myself get through the next couple of days, and then planning them out, can be super helpful. Writing it all down, and figuring out the logistics can be really comforting.
  • Ask someone in the house to help me out: Sometimes when I wake up in a lot of pain, I will ask someone in my house to help give me a hand getting out the door. I will ask my sister if she can make me a coffee while she’s in the kitchen, or my mom if she can help motivate me to get out of bed. This strategy of course depends on others, but if they are willing, it can be the difference between a splat day in bed, and making it to school.
  • Pacing: The main idea here is to manage my time in a way that is mindful that I need more sleep than others, that it may take longer to complete tasks, and to make sure that I am not over doing it – which may result in a bad episode of pain. Pacing is a very personal and individualized thing, that has looked different throughout the different phases of my life. The key here is to try not to get over ambitious, and be realistic with myself about the energy and time I have in a day. When I am pacing well, I will not be disappointed with my productivity, or end up triggering my pain.
  • Energy management: Energy management is very similar to pacing. It is all about planning your day so that you are doing the hardest tasks when you have the most energy. It is also about observing when you are having energy crashes and taking action to try to lessen these slumps. Otherwise said, it is getting to know yourself and how you work, so that you can get the most out of your time. This is something I have been doing for a while, without realizing. I came across this concept in a YouTube video which I will link here:
  • Accountability: It can be really hard to stay consistent with things like physio exercises, mindfulness practice, pain tracking, and so on. Sometimes I just need an extra accountability check to push me to keep up with these types of habits. Using accountability can be as simple as asking someone in your house to check in with you about your progress regularly, or using a habit tracking app like “Streaks”. You can even plan a treat for yourself if you are able to be consistent for a certain period of time!

After reading my chronic pain tool kit, you may be starting to think about all the things – big or little – that you personally do. Maybe we have lots in common, or maybe your tool kit would look entirely different. Either way, I think it is a great exercise to reflect on all the ways you have adapted to your pain, and the things you do to respond to your needs throughout the day. Whether you write it down or just build one in your head. You may even decide that you want to try some new things. It is a chance to get creative and really look at how you can make the most of life. I really used to think that there was nothing that could be done, when in reality there are endless possibilities.

With patience, and trial and error I have been able to figure out a lot already.

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Last Updated: September 22, 2020