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How can I improve my pain control before and after treatment?

Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
06 July 2020

If you’re waiting for surgery or other treatment, you may already be looking for ways to manage symptoms such as pain. Pain is a very personal thing – no-one but you knows how bad it might feel. Learning more about pain and how you can manage it can help you now, as well as after your treatment.


Types of pain

First, let’s take a closer look at the different types of pain.

  • Acute pain means pain that’s come on recently and usually lasts hours, days or weeks, rather than months. Acute pain is usually considered to be ‘helpful’ in the sense that it alerts you to a potential health issue that may need a medical check-up. You can usually identify what’s caused it – for example an injury, surgery or a particular medical condition such as gallstones.
  • Chronic pain means pain that lasts a long time – at least 12 weeks. It usually refers to ‘unhelpful’ pain that has lasted beyond the body’s usual healing time. So unfortunately, it can be something that you have to learn to cope with. Musculoskeletal conditions, like back pain or knee pain, are examples of conditions that can cause chronic pain.

Describing pain

Pain can be described in various ways. Knowing these descriptions can help you in conversations with healthcare professionals. It can assist them in making a diagnosis, and assessing how well you respond to treatment.

  • Pain may be classed as mild, moderate or severe, depending on how intense it is and how badly it’s affecting you.
  • You may have recurrent (also called ‘intermittent’) pain, which means it comes and goes. Or your pain might be constant, which means you have it all the time.
  • Nociceptive pain is pain that results from actual damage to or inflammation of tissues. Most acute pain is nociceptive. For example, pain from a broken bone, or pain after surgery.
  • Neuropathic pain is caused by nerve damage. You might feel like a body part hurts, because a damaged nerve located there is sending pain signals to the brain. Other tissues, like muscles and bones, might not be damaged themselves. Much chronic pain is neuropathic, for example in fibromyalgia or diabetes.
  • Referred pain means you get pain in a different part of the body from whatever’s causing it. A common example is feeling pain in your jaw or left arm if you have a heart attack.

How emotions affect pain

Most of us have experienced pain at some point. But how we feel and experience pain is more complex than you might think. Pain is strongly linked to your emotions and previous experiences, as well as any actual injury or damage to your body. This doesn’t mean that it’s “all in your mind”, but more that it’s a complex interaction between different factors.

You may notice, for instance, that your pain can feel worse if you focus on it or feel negatively about it. That of course can make you feel even more low. Also, if you’re in pain, you might start to avoid your usual activities. Since being inactive can actually make your pain worse, it’s easy to end up in a negative cycle. Because you’re inactive you may feel worse and find yourself able to do less. And with your pain having an impact on all areas of your life, including your sleep, relationships and your work.

Tackling negative thought processes can help you to take control of your pain and break this cycle. Often, a combination of both physical and psychological techniques can be most effective in managing your pain.

Self-help techniques for pain control

If your pain is because of a condition you’re awaiting treatment for, then assuming all goes well, you should be much more comfortable once you’ve recovered from surgery.

In the meantime, arming yourself with some pain management techniques can help you now, as well as when you go into hospital. Here are some techniques and strategies you can try.

Keep a pain diary

By keeping a pain diary, you will gain a better understanding of the patterns around your pain, its impact, and what increases and lessens it. Is it worse at a particular time of day? What makes it feel worse or better? You can then use this information to plan your day and pace yourself to achieve the things you want or need to do. A pain diary can also help with diagnosis when it comes to describing your pain to a doctor.

Relaxation techniques

Take some time to learn relaxation techniques. These can help to relieve stress and tension and so reduce your pain. Learning these techniques can also help if you’re having trouble sleeping.

Distraction

Focusing on something tends to make it dominate your thoughts, and what you think often influences what you experience. So, this means thinking of other things – perhaps an image in your mind – can distract you from the pain when it flares up.

Meditation and mindfulness

Using techniques such as meditation and mindfulness can help you to counteract the stress you may feel with pain, helping you to relax. Why not give one of our mindfulness podcasts a try?

Keep active

One of the most important things you can do to help yourself is to get some exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. A walk in the open air can give you a boost and keep your muscles and joints moving. You might also wish to try other low-impact activities like swimming or Pilates.

Although you may worry about exercise increasing your pain, avoiding it often makes things worse in the long-term. Being physically active is important to maintain your fitness, strength and mobility. It can make you feel better too, because exercise releases endorphins in your brain, which suppress pain signals. A physiotherapist can help you to work out what type of exercises will be most helpful for you.

Enjoy life

Staying positive and keeping doing things you enjoy, like hobbies and socialising with friends and family will help to keep your spirits up and distract you from focusing on your pain.

There’s not always a magic answer to get rid of your pain; it can take a bit of trial and error to find what works for you. It’s helpful if you can develop a ‘toolkit’ of different skills that you can draw on to manage your pain. The Pain Toolkit is one resource that contains more information about self-managing your pain. Be sure to speak to your GP if your pain remains poorly controlled.

Managing pain in hospital

When you’re in hospital for treatment, your team will do their best to ensure you have enough pain relief to manage the pain associated with surgery. Taking your prescribed painkillers regularly, by the clock, is the best way to stop it bubbling up to the surface. Don’t be shy telling staff if your pain is not controlled well enough; they’ll want to know and be able to help. You can use any pain management techniques you’ve learnt during this time too.

Don’t forget, everyone’s experience of pain is very individual, and how you deal with it will be very personal to you too. It’s worth putting in some time and effort to learn how to control your pain, rather than letting it control you.

Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance

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    • Musculoskeletal lower back pain. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed May 2020
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