What I Know About Healing Chronic Pain From 37 Years Of Treating Patients

There are over 50 million adults in the United States living with some form of chronic pain. The impact of chronic pain on people’s lives is enormous; unfortunately, despite modern medical advances we’re still not that great at treating it.

We may be unsuccessful in treating chronic pain because the way we’ve thought about where it comes from is all wrong. Research demonstrates that chronic pain is frequently a symptom of inflammation in the brain. Finding a cure requires that we identify and treat all the things that are causing the brain to remain in an inflamed state.

Here are seven things you need to do to effectively to deal with your chronic pain:

  1. Get a real diagnosis.

Chronic pain, in and of itself, is not a diagnosis. It’s a symptom of injury or illness, and even more specifically, it’s a symptom of inflammation. For example, over the course of 37 years of practicing family medicine and treating patients suffering from chronic pain, the worst case of acute shoulder pain I have ever seen was in a man who was having a heart attack.

I also have seen patients complain of chronic lower back pain, when their underlying problem was actually Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune disease that causes digestive problems).

Similarly, chronic migraine headaches may be a symptom of a food allergy. When this is the case, eliminating the offending foods can be a straightforward solution.

Today, we are seeing more and more people experiencing pain symptoms as a result of a previous COVID-19 infection. Long-COVID Syndrome symptoms often mimic the pain symptoms of fibromyalgia, ME/CFS and POTS.

Getting the right diagnosis requires a comprehensive history by a physician who can connect the dots. Frequently, what you think is the beginning of your pain problem is not its actually cause.

Bottom line: you must know what to treat if you have any hope of finding a cure.

  1. Get tested for sleep disorders and get enough rest.

If you’re getting seven or more hours of sleep per night, but you still feel exhausted all the time, you may have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition that means that while you’re sleeping you periodically stop breathing. During these intervals, your brain is deprived of oxygen, which causes inflammation of the neural tissue in the brain. Sleep apnea affects approximately 5% of Americans and it has been estimated that as many as 85% of people with this condition have not been diagnosed.

The inflammation caused by sleep apnea can cause or contribute to joint pain, migraine headaches, abdominal pain, and other chronic pain conditions. Ask your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. Sleep well and you’ll find you have more energy and less pain.

  1. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet.

To eliminate the dietary causes of chronic pain, I usually recommend that patients limit their food intake to rice, fish, chicken, and fresh fruits and vegetables for a period of six weeks. While this food plan doesn’t eliminate every possible allergen, it does eliminate the major offenders, such as gluten, milk and milk products, refined sugar, processed foods, nuts and eggs.

When you eat, notice if certain foods cause you to experience an adverse reaction such as a stuffy nose, fatigue, headache, bloating, or gas. By eliminating the foods that create inflammation in your brain and body, you’ll find that your pain decreases and your physical energy and mental clarity increase.

  1. Meditate.

Studies show that regular meditation improves brain function and can help the brain recover from inflammatory damage. Regular meditation also has been shown to improve our ability to tolerate and recover from stress. Meditate for 20 to 30 minutes a day and see if you notice a difference.

  1. Make time for manual therapy.

Hands-on therapies such as osteopathic manual therapyphysical therapy, massage, and chiropractic therapy can help relieve, and in some cases, completely resolve chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Whatever the pain’s origin — whether its disease, traumatic injury or overuse, or emotional stress — bodywork can help stimulate healthy blood flow into damaged muscles, tendons, and connective tissue, thereby relieving musculoskeletal pain and tension and stimulating the body’s own ability to heal itself.

In fact, manual therapy is so effective in unlocking the emotional stress and trauma stored in our bodies that I often also recommend working with a psychotherapist who can help you process these issues.

  1. Take nutritional supplements that are right for you.

There are supplements on the market that can help address generalized inflammation and joint pain. Supplements are also a great way to strengthen your immune system and help keep you healthy. However, before you start taking any new product, make sure you are buying from a trusted supplier; the U.S. Food & Drug Administration does not regulate the manufacture and marketing of supplements as they do with prescription medication.

Talk with your doctor about the medications and other supplements you are already taking before starting a new supplement because some products can cause drug interactions. 

  1. Practice gratitude.

Although this is sometimes a lot to ask of people whose lives have been devastated by chronic pain, the cultivation of gratitude for family and friends and the other gifts in our lives helps make us more trusting, altruistic, resilient, and just plain happier. It also allows us to live each day more fully.

I recommend keeping a gratitude diary and listing five things for which you are grateful each day. Other gratitude exercises include visualizing and writing about your future, best possible self; putting your gratitude into action by writing a thank-you note or visiting a person to whom you owe a debt of gratitude. Spending time each day contemplating the things for which you are grateful is likely to help reduce not only your stress level but also your experience of physical pain.

Good luck on your healing journey!

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