Lifestyle strategies for pain management
Medically reviewed on October 28, 2017
Pain affects every aspect of your life. It can challenge or change the activities you choose to do, the thoughts you have and even the sleep you get. This is because, in addition to your physical discomfort, pain can affect your mental and emotional health — increasing your stress and frustration, sapping your motivation and activity levels, and contributing to fatigue.
In turn, your day-to-day life plays a key role in managing pain. In fact, there are several positive lifestyle changes you can make to help manage your pain. Two starting points are to eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight. The following suggestions are other things you can do every day to be your healthiest, most comfortable self.
Pain and stress feed off one another. Pain is a source of stress. And when you feel stress, you may react in ways — such as tensing your muscles and gritting your teeth — that increase your pain. You can prevent this cycle by better managing your stress.
Start by recognizing your stress triggers. Write down the things that cause your stress, considering each part of your life, including work, relationships, home, poor health habits, and perfectionism or negative thinking. Then take a hard look at the list and think about ways you can minimize or even eliminate those triggers. For example, if you feel rushed when you get ready for work in the morning, think about how you might better prepare the evening before to make the morning go more smoothly. Or if you're stressed because you have too many obligations on your schedule, decide which ones you can remove. Learn to say no.
Practicing relaxation skills also helps you better manage stress. Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, visual imagery, meditation and mindfulness are some of the techniques that can help you center yourself and approach your day from a calmer, more balanced and less stressful place.
Stay physically active
There are many reasons to exercise. But when you're struggling with pain, one of the best reasons is for relief. Aerobic or "cardio" exercise — which uses your large muscle groups and raises your heart rate — releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that act as your body's natural painkillers.
How much exercise is enough to make a difference? Research suggests that 30 to 45 minutes of low-intensity aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) five or six days a week is your best bet — and even four days of exercise a week will have some effect.
Before you start a new exercise program, however, talk to your health care professional if you're older than age 40, have been sedentary, have risk factors for coronary heart disease or have chronic health problems. If you have pain from an injury, recent surgery, a physical disability or a chronic condition such as osteoporosis, it's best to work with a physical therapist or exercise physiologist to be sure you can exercise safely and avoid hurting yourself.
Get enough sleep
Pain — and some pain-related medications — can interfere with sleep. You might find it difficult to fall asleep, or you may wake up during the night. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some pain medications can cause fatigue and make you want to sleep the day away. Yet getting a proper amount of sleep is important because sleep helps you cope with your pain by boosting your energy levels and your mood.
How can you sleep better, in spite of your pain? Take these actions:
- Be strategic about medications. Talk to your health care professional about timing if you are taking medications. Take a medication that causes drowsiness at night before bed. And if your medications include stimulants, which can keep you awake, take those earlier in the day.
- Practice relaxation. Sit quietly, read, write in a journal or listen to soothing music as you prepare for sleep.
- Sleep on a schedule. Routine sleeping hours can help you sleep. Go to bed and wake up at about the same time each day.
- Don't try to force sleep. If you wake up and can't go back to sleep, try reading, writing in a journal or watching TV until you feel sleepy.
- Watch what you eat and drink. Heavy meals and fluids before bed might keep you up, or make you wake up in the middle of the night. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine also can interfere with sleep.
- Set yourself up for success. Practice good sleep hygiene: Close curtains and your bedroom door, use comfortable bedding, keep the room temperature cool, and put your clock somewhere you can't see it.
- Plan ahead. Be physically active during the day to help you sleep more soundly at night. Avoid naps or limit them to 30 minutes during the day.