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
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.’
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.
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.