How can I control my pain before and after treatment?

profile picture of Damien Smith
Consultant in Pain Medicine and Anaesthesia
30 June 2023
Next review due June 2026

If you’re waiting for surgery or treatment, you may be looking for ways to manage and reduce your pain. Pain is different for everyone and can be difficult to manage. Only you know how your pain feels. Learning more about pain and how to manage it can help you now, and after your treatment. Here I look at the different types of pain and offer some tips to help you control it.

person being treated for back pain

What are the different types of pain?

There are different types of pain. They may affect you in different ways and have different causes. Below are some types of pain.

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

How can I describe my pain?

You can describe pain in different ways. Knowing how to explain what your pain is like can help when talking to your doctor. It can help them to make a diagnosis and assess how well you’re responding to treatment.

  • Pain can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how intense it is and how badly it’s affecting you.
  • You may have recurrent or ‘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 comes from damage or inflammation of tissues. Most acute pain is nociceptive. For example, this could be pain from a broken bone or pain after surgery.
  • Neuropathic pain is caused by nerve damage. You might feel a body part hurting because a damaged nerve there is sending pain signals to the brain. Other tissues, like muscles and bones, might not be damaged themselves. Chronic pain is often neuropathic, for example in shingles or diabetes.
  • Referred pain means you get pain in a different part of the body than whatever’s causing it. A common example is feeling pain in your jaw or left arm if you have a heart attack.

Can our emotions affect how we feel 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 our emotions and previous experiences, as well as any injury or damage to our bodies. This doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real, but how we feel emotionally can impact how well we cope with it.

For example, you may notice that your pain feels worse if you focus on it or feel negatively about it. And, this might make you feel low.

Also, if you’re in pain you might start to avoid your usual activities. As being inactive can make pain worse, it’s easy for this to cause a negative cycle. Because you’re inactive you may feel worse and able to do less.

Pain can impact all areas of our life such as sleep, relationships, and work which can also affect your mood.

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

Are there any self-help techniques for pain control?

If your pain is because of a condition, then hopefully you should be much more comfortable once you’ve recovered from surgery or had treatment.

While you wait, learning some pain management techniques can help you now, as well as when you go into hospital. Here are some pain control techniques and strategies you can try.

1. Keep active

It’s important to try and get some exercise. Walking outdoors can help to boost your mood and keep your muscles and joints moving. You could try other low-impact activities like swimming or Pilates.

Although you may worry about exercise increasing your pain, avoiding it can make things worse 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.

2. Keep a pain diary

By keeping a pain diary, this can help you have a better understanding of any patterns around your pain, its impact, and what makes it worse or better.

Is your pain worse at a certain time of day? What sort of things make increase or decrease your pain? You can then use this information to plan your day and pace yourself to achieve the things you want to do. A pain diary can also help with diagnosis when describing your pain to a doctor.

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

4. Distraction

Focusing on something tends to make it dominate your thoughts, and what you think often influences what you experience. So, trying to think about something else, such as a relaxing image in your mind, can distract you from the pain when it flares up.

5. Enjoy life

It can be difficult, but try to stay positive and keep doing the things you enjoy, like hobbies and socialising with loved ones. This can help to 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.

How can I manage my pain in hospital?

When you’re in hospital for treatment, your team will do their best to make sure you have enough pain relief to manage the pain associated with surgery.

Taking your prescribed painkillers regularly, can help to keep your pain manageable. And, gentle walking if you’re able to, can also help with your recovery. Make sure to tell 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.

profile picture of Damien Smith
Dr Damien Smith
Consultant in Pain Medicine and Anaesthesia



Lucy Kapoutsos, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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