How to beat pain for good

Are you one of the mil­lions of women who suf­fer in si­lence with chronic pain? It’s time to fight back

Prima (UK) - - Contents -

Mil­lions of women suf­fer in si­lence, but a few life­style changes can free you from chronic pain for ever

Some pain is easy to treat... you slip, an X-ray con­firms your an­kle is sprained, you ban­dage it, walk with crutches and ev­ery­one gives you sym­pa­thy. How­ever, some pain is in­vis­i­ble, hard to di­ag­nose, and tricky to treat. You may get a lot less sym­pa­thy, too. That’s chronic pain: de­fined as pain that per­sists for more than 12 weeks or longer than the amount of time heal­ing should take af­ter trauma or surgery.

‘Chronic pain is less to do with in­jury and more to do with our cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem,’ ex­plains Pro­fes­sor An­drew Horne, an ex­pert on en­dometrio­sis and a mem­ber of Wellbeing of Women Re­search Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee. ‘It’s like the vol­ume but­ton on our pain sys­tem has been left turned up.’

As many as 28 mil­lion Brits are af­fected, so even if you’re lucky enough not to suf­fer chronic pain, chances are some­one close to you does. And more women are likely to be af­fected than men. ‘The gen­der dif­fer­ence may be re­lated to hor­mones, pain re­cep­tors, genes, or dif­fer­ences in brain func­tion,’ says Prima’s ex­pert Dr Sarah Brewer. ‘There may be struc­tural dif­fer­ences, too; for ex­am­ple, joint car­ti­lage is thin­ner in women, which could mean they’re more likely to de­velop os­teoarthri­tis pain.’

Frus­trat­ingly, chronic pain is still not fully un­der­stood, mak­ing it even harder for suf­fer­ers. Even get­ting a proper di­ag­no­sis and treat­ment takes time, and

many women mud­dle on, get fobbed off as hav­ing ‘women’s prob­lems’ or, worse still, are told that it’s all in their heads.

‘There is a huge need for ad­vice and so­lu­tions,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘My blog posts that re­late to painful con­di­tions such as painful joints and the use of pain-re­liev­ing sup­ple­ments, creams and gels get over a hun­dred times more daily visi­tors than any other posts.’

Get­ting your doc­tor to lis­ten

Be­cause pain is sub­jec­tive, it’s wor­ry­ing how eas­ily it’s dis­missed, which may ex­plain why a re­cent US re­port found that women’s pain was more likely to be viewed as ‘emo­tional’ and there­fore not real. This was con­firmed by UK re­search that found when women and men suf­fer ex­actly the same sever­ity of ab­dom­i­nal pain, women are far more likely to be per­ceived as ir­ra­tional and emo­tional.

‘It can be dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate what you’re go­ing through,’ ac­knowl­edges Pro­fes­sor Horne, ‘but if the pain is af­fect­ing your qual­ity of life, dam­ag­ing your mo­bil­ity and stop­ping you leav­ing the house, you need to make sure your doc­tor un­der­stands that your pain is se­vere, and that you need help to man­age it.’

Dr Brewer agrees: ‘If a doc­tor seems to dis­miss your symp­toms, con­sult some­one else. If you feel a male doc­tor doesn’t seem to un­der­stand women’s is­sues (and many are ex­cel­lent at do­ing so, of course) then ask to see a fe­male doc­tor. If your symp­toms are not get­ting bet­ter, go back and tell your doc­tor so they can con­sider other op­tions. If they have ex­hausted all op­tions, ask to be re­ferred to spe­cial­ist pain ser­vices.’

Life­style tweaks

Treat­ing pain isn’t only about tak­ing med­i­ca­tion, it’s about chang­ing habits. ‘Painkillers can be nec­es­sary and help­ful, but a bet­ter ap­proach is a com­bi­na­tion of ex­er­cise, re­duc­ing stress and phys­i­cal ther­apy,’ says Pro­fes­sor Horne. ‘The on­line Pain Toolkit (paintoolkit.org) is help­ful, too.’

Sophia Kupse, au­thor of Pain-free: Easy Steps To A Hap­pier, Health­ier You (the­mus­cle­whis­perer.co.uk), who suf­fered with chronic pain her­self fol­low­ing a car ac­ci­dent, agrees. ‘Chronic pain is on the in­crease, as are con­di­tions such as ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome and fi­bromyal­gia. Life­style pres­sures have been closely linked to th­ese con­di­tions, so ad­dress­ing a bet­ter work-life bal­ance is key to re­duc­ing symp­toms.

‘Af­ter my ac­ci­dent, my sci­atic nerve was scarred but painkillers and phys­io­ther­apy did very lit­tle for me. A com­bi­na­tion of vi­su­al­i­sa­tion and sup­ple­ments – in­clud­ing vi­ta­min B12, evening prim­rose oil and vi­ta­min D – helped me to heal,’ says Sophia.

Keep mov­ing

While the ad­vice of old was to rest, ex­perts now agree ac­tiv­ity, rather than hours spent in front of the TV, is key.

‘Walk­ing, swim­ming, cy­cling, dance and Pi­lates are good, and mo­bil­ity and stretch­ing need to be part of your life­style,’ says Pro­fes­sor Horne. ‘Try

to be ac­tive ev­ery day, not only on the good days. This may re­duce your num­ber of bad days and help you feel more in con­trol.’

Yoga and med­i­ta­tion can re­ally help, too, con­firms Sophia Kupse. ‘Chronic pain trig­gers changes in the brain that are linked to de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and im­paired cog­ni­tive func­tion. Re­search shows that yoga and med­i­ta­tion have the op­po­site ef­fect and can re­lieve chronic symp­toms. They help calm and de-stress the mind, aid­ing sleep and the re­lease of en­dor­phins that heal pain.’

Hos­pi­tal pain clin­ics of­fer man­age­ment pro­grammes, too.

‘Th­ese group ses­sions don’t treat pain, but teach you ways to cope with it, and re­search shows that you can ex­pect to en­joy a bet­ter qual­ity of life, sleep and mo­bil­ity after­wards,’ says Pro­fes­sor Horne.

Stud­ies show that acupunc­ture helps ease con­di­tions such as lower back and neck pain and os­teoarthri­tis, and Dr Brewer adds that ‘re­lax­ation, med­i­ta­tion, hyp­no­sis, acupunc­ture and cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy (CBT) can all help’.

Change your diet

In­flam­ma­tion is the body’s nor­mal re­sponse to in­jury, but when it gets out of con­trol, it can de­stroy healthy tis­sue, caus­ing chronic pain. The good news is that we can fight in­flam­ma­tion with food. Base your diet around whole foods, eat­ing lots of fi­bre from good carbs and veg­eta­bles, and in­clude in­flam­ma­tion-fight­ers, such as cit­rus fruits, leafy greens, to­ma­toes and sal­mon. ‘Al­co­hol, caf­feine, sugar, fried foods, dairy and ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers all cause in­flam­ma­tion in the body,’ says Sophia. ‘By elim­i­nat­ing th­ese, chronic pain is re­duced.’ Also, tar­get symp­toms with par­tic­u­lar nu­tri­ents. ‘Cut­ting back on omega 6s (found in veg­etable oils, dress­ings, may­on­naise and pro­cessed foods) and in­creas­ing omega 3s (in oily fish, nuts, seeds and rape­seed oil) will re­duce in­flam­ma­tion,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘There is also good ev­i­dence that turmeric and omega-3 fish oil sup­ple­ments ease arthri­tis pain. Healthy eat­ing will shed ex­cess weight, re­duc­ing in­flam­ma­tion and pres­sure on weight-bear­ing joints, too.’

Don’t for­get your men­tal health

‘Chronic pain in­ter­feres with all as­pects of life, from mo­bil­ity and eat­ing to so­cial­is­ing and sleep­ing. Un­sur­pris­ingly, it can lead to in­creased iso­la­tion and de­pres­sion,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Ad­dress this with an­tide­pres­sants and talk­ing ther­a­pies – even if you’re not overtly de­pressed – as th­ese can help by nor­mal­is­ing the bal­ance of brain chem­i­cals in­volved in pain per­cep­tion.’

Fo­cus on sleep, too. UK re­search found that con­di­tions – in­clud­ing back pain, fi­bromyal­gia and arthri­tis – can be hugely im­proved when peo­ple sleep well. They found that peo­ple with chronic con­di­tions who be­lieve they won’t sleep be­cause of pain are more likely to suf­fer from in­som­nia, which wors­ens it – it’s a vi­cious cy­cle. When the pain suf­fer­ers in the study had a course of CBT, their sleep im­proved and pain prob­lems were sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced. Ask your GP, as CBT is of­ten avail­able on the NHS.

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