Healthy Habits: 36 million Americans suffer from pain
Thomas Jefferson once said, "The art of life is the art of avoiding pain." Personally, I try to make life a bit more joyful than that. But for more than 50 million Americans who live with chronic pain, I am sure it rings true.
The Gallup Organization did a study in 2000 and found that 36 million Americans missed work in the previous year due to pain, and 83 million indicated that pain affected their participation in various activities. The majority of people who suffer from pain do so for more than five years. If pain is so common, what can we do to make it better?
"There is no magic bullet," said Marcia Boyle-Eren, a certified pain management nurse with the Natick Visiting Nurse Association in Massachusetts. "You really have to try different approaches and treatments and do what works for you.”
Luckily, the vast majority of people are able to manage their pain at home, using both traditional and alternative treatments, or a combination of both.
"Acute injuries respond well to cold. When someone twists an ankle, cold reduces the swelling and helps minimize the pain. Good old-fashion elevation works well, too. Heat is better used for chronic pain or an old injury," said Boyle-Eren. "It loosens up the muscle by increasing the blood flow."
Most people are familiar with over-the-counter pain medications. Acetaminophen relieves pain and reduces fever, while ibuprofen targets swelling in addition to pain.
"I advise folks to use the lowest dosage that's effective," said Boyle-Eren. "If you can get away with one pill every six hours, then there is no need to take more. Just don't take more than the recommended dose without talking with your physician."
Many people find relief with topical creams as well. They can help increase blood flow to the area that relieves pain.
It is becoming more common for people to seek complementary therapies or alternative treatments for pain, either in addition to or as a replacement for traditional medicine. Here are some types of alternative treatments that are being used today:
- Acupuncture can decrease stress and anxiety as well as increase appetite and blood flow.
- Massage can improve circulation.
- Aromatherapy helps decrease stress and anxiety, and it helps with sleep, which will decrease pain. The essential oil lavender is often used.
- Exercise helps build strength and stamina.
- Reflexology and touch therapy use pressure points to increase energy flow through the body.
- Music therapy reduces stress and anxiety.
- Chiropractic uses manual manipulation to realign the body.
- Yoga uses deep breathing and stretching to reduce stress and build flexibility.
"A lot of people don't understand the relationship between stress, anxiety and pain," said Boyle-Eren. "In many cases, reducing a person's stress can reduce their pain as well. When a person's mind is more relaxed, their body is more receptive to accepting help. It's like the body says, 'Ok, I am ready to let this medicine, massage or other therapy work."'
Of course, for those 50 million Americans who live with chronic pain, at-home treatments may not be enough.
"People should definitely talk with their health care provider if they are in pain," said Boyle-Eren. "And there are so many online resources, too. The Massachusetts Pain Initiative (http://masspaininitiative.org/) and the American Pain Foundation (http://painaid.painfoundation.org/) are great sites to get started on."
"The art of life is the art of avoiding pain; and he is the best pilot, who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset" is the full quote by Thomas Jefferson. Using some of these tools to minimize pain is like steering clear of the rocks so that you can focus on the joys of life.
Betsy Wadland is director of development for the Natick VNA in Massachusetts, a nonprofit health care organization providing home care to thousands of people throughout MetroWest each year. For more information, call the VNA at 508-653-3081.