The chronic pain associated with arthritis is something that everyone with arthritis or MSK conditions must learn to live with. Normally, pain is a defence mechanism to protect the body from danger or to alert us that a part of the body is damaged. These warning signals should not be ignored. Due to the persistent nature of chronic pain and the fact arthritis is a life-long condition, taking pain medication over a long period of time brings its own problems. Apart from the side effects of painkillers, over time they will lose their effectiveness to mask the pain as the body becomes resistant to them.
Opioid pain killers are much stronger and have even more drastic side effects, not to mention the dangers of opioid addiction and drug dependency. Evidence suggests that a substantial part of the pain we experience is created in the brain and that we can control how the brain experiences it, breaking the pain cycle. Because everybody experiences pain in a unique way, each individual will have to work out which techniques work best for them in any given situation. Managing your pain won’t take years of training: simple things like using adaptive gadgets to make cooking easier will reduce the pain and stress you experience.
It’s important that, whichever strategies you use, you are comfortable with them. Pain management techniques will not get rid of pain completely, but can reduce it significantly. Used safely with painkillers and other medication, they can have a very positive impact on how you live your life. There are two types of strategies for pain management, prevention and relief. Prevention strategies can be physical aids that make activities easier and so use up less energy or reduce the strain on the joints and body, like walking sticks and electric can openers. There are mental strategies too, like daily scheduling (where you break the day into sections and limit what activities you do in each section) and the spoon theory, which is more personal and can be adapted to suit your capabilities on a daily basis.
Inevitably, you will still experience pain at some point, but relief strategies will help to reduce the impact. Physical strategies include hot and cold packs, compress bandages, and pain relief gels. There are also mental strategies to combat pain, such as the art of distraction, which shifts the focus of the mind away from the pain. There are many ways of doing this, from reading, listening to music or engaging in a hobby like knitting or painting. Some strategies will work better than others in different circumstances and for different types of pain. You must find your own arsenal of techniques that work for you.
Download our well-being booklet for more details on pain management for people with arthritis.