Treating Pain Without Drugs – 5 Tips to Feel Better and Use Less Medicine

Most patients think doctors never hurt. Not true. I’ve lived with pain every day for the last 40+ years, so I know a thing or two about what I’m saying. Not that I never take pain medication, but Tylenol or an occasional Advil is about it – no narcotics.Does that mean my pain isn’t worthy of anything stronger? I don’t think so. But I would say my attitude toward pain is different than many of my patients. For me, it’s just a part of life. Many older adults would say the same thing.But in 20 years as a family physician I’ve met thousands of people who see pain differently. For them, pain is something to be avoided at all costs. Fear of pain is a big issue for them. Also, many people spend too much time resenting that life isn’t fair. Get over it! You’ll be much happier.Pain isn’t all about a physical problem. It is shaded by our emotions, or energy level, or degree of happiness. If the underlying problem cannot be remedied, controlling other factors will help you find ways to deal with the pain without resorting to addictive drugs.Here are 5 proven tips that have helped me as well as my patients deal with on-going pain.1. Get enough rest. Pain is often a cumulative thing. If you can nip it in the bud, your body can reset to a lower level of discomfort. I learned long ago that I’m not a person who can live on 4 hours of sleep. It is counterproductive for me to even try. Although occasionally I’ll go with 5 or 6, for the most part I must have 7 to 8 hours nightly to function at my best. Sometimes this means taking a nap. Nighttime rest helps the body recover from the stress of life and gravity, but afternoon naps also give the body a boost in several ways. They help muscles relax, and temporarily relieve the pressure on joints and body parts that are subject to the compressive effects of gravity. A nap can refresh the mind, allowing a person to tackle a job with renewed energy. Also, as the body is falling asleep, chemicals are released (endorphins and others) that are natural pain killers and muscle relaxants. You do not have to sleep long for this to occur – 20 minutes will do – but it does require falling into at least a light sleep.2. Do things that make you happy. I love music and direct a choir, which requires standing continuously for two hours. Now, if I had to wait in line that long for a roller coaster, I’d find myself in terrible torment. I hate wasting my time, especially for something I don’t much want to do in the first place. But as long as I’m engaged in my music, the pain is at bay. Of course, I may collapse into my seat afterward, but an activity that engages your mind in a positive way will not only take your mind off your discomfort, but helps release endorphins as well.3. Use wraps and supports. Pain medication is not the only answer to swollen limbs, bad backs, and aching joints. In fact, pain is our friend. It tells us that our body requires maintenance or TLC. Sometimes taking pain medicine just hides the problem, like a fresh coat of paint over a mildew-stained basement. In fact, pain medication may disguise a problem, allowing you to be more active that your body can tolerate, resulting in additional damage. It can be a fine line, however, knowing how active to be – a good question to discuss with your doctor. However, little if any harm will result from using splints, ACE wraps, compression hose, or back supports that relieve part of the exertion-related strain on an injured body part.4. Be careful how you sleep. A pillow under the knees can relieve lumbar strain for a back-sleeper. A flatter pillow can relieve neck strain for a stomach-sleeper. A pillow between the knees can decrease pain related to the knees, hips, or lower back. A carpal tunnel splint can keep your wrist in an anatomical position so you don’t awaken with a painful hand.5. Find a comfortable exercise. For many people with back problems or arthritis, swimming is the best answer. For others, walking 20 minutes a day helps maintain sufficient limberness to decrease joint pain. Some amount of exercise helps nearly every physical problem, however too much can worsen the condition. It’s really up to the patient to determine what is best, although your doctor, chiropractor, or physical therapist can offer you guidance and advice. For example, I’m sure I have a torn cartilage in my knee, but it doesn’t usually bother me. I can walk 25 minutes without a problem, but at 35 minutes it’s starting to ache. However, it actually feels better if I do walk daily than if I rest it all the time. My back feels better if I do a little weeding, however 10 seconds of tugging my 70-lb. goldendoodle into the car can do me in for several days. Get to know your body, your tolerances and limits, and stop short of what causes pain.In summary, get up with a smile, try to keep it all day, get a good night’s rest, don’t push yourself unnecessarily, and remember: early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.Copyright 2010 Cynthia J. Koelker, M.D.

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