Coping with Your Chronic Pain
Unlike acute pain, where pain only lasts a
short time, chronic pain may last for years.
Chronic pain often has many causes that can
change over time. These causes can include:
ξ changes in the nervous system
ξ lifestyle factors such as smoking
ξ lack of exercise, poor diet, or stress
ξ environmental factors
No matter what the cause is, chronic pain is
real. It does not go away. It can lead to a
loss of physical activity and sleep, a sense of
uncertainty about the future, and feelings of
helplessness. Learning to manage pain is
important to your health and well being. In
spite of the reason for your pain, you can
change some aspects of the problems pain
can cause by learning to manage it.
Key to managing chronic pain
1. Acknowledge your feelings about pain
and how it affects you. You may feel
sad, angry, or anxious about how unfair
your pain is and how it has upset your
life. You should know that even though
anger, blame, guilt, and sadness are
normal feelings, they can be paralyzing.
Share your feelings and frustrations with
family, friends, and your health care
team. Accept their support and seek out
new ways to cope. Adopt a sense of
ownership of your pain problem to
regain control of your life.
2. Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Like many
chronic illnesses, chronic pain is best
managed with healthy habits. Eat
healthy foods, stay active, get enough
sleep, and drink plenty of water.
Because day-to-day stress can make pain
feel worse, learn ways to manage your
stress. There are many skills and
resources to choose from. Ask your
health care team for a list of options.
You can also refer to HFFY 6585 What
is Stress and how can I relieve it?
3. Set realistic goals to improve the quality
of your life. Even though we may not be
able to “cure” your pain or take it away,
setting and meeting goals can help you
have less pain and improve the quality of
4. Take an active part in your care. You
are the most important member of your
health care team. Professionals can help
you control your pain by looking at it
from other points of view and coming up
with other options, but only you can
make changes that meet your needs.
Use a “multimodal” approach
There are no simple and easy ways to
manage chronic pain. But, this doesn’t
mean we give up. There are many options
and ways to combine therapies to reduce
your pain and take back control of your life.
Each person needs a plan that includes both
drug and non-drug methods. Just as pain is
rarely controlled with non-drug methods
alone, pain cannot be managed with drugs
alone. It may take many trials to find the
best approach for you.
Sleep is needed for good health. You should
plan to get at least 6 hours of sleep each
night. During sleep, the body restores many
of the hormones it needs to function. For
most people, sleep, mood, and pain are
closely linked. A goal of your pain
treatment plan will be to improve your sleep
through exercise and staying away from
drugs and foods that can disrupt sleep.
Examples of foods that can impact sleep are
caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, spicy or high
acid foods. Medicines that impact sleep may
include some over the counter headache
formulations that contain caffeine, cold and
flu medicines that contain alcohol, and
nicotine replacement products
How and what we eat affects how we feel
and how our body handles sickness. Eat a
balanced and varied diet. Lose weight if you
need to, but avoid fad diets. Use small
amounts of sugar, salt, and fat. Do not use
caffeine or alcohol. Drink at least 8 glasses
of water each day. For more ideas for
healthy eating, or advice on how to improve
your eating habits, ask to speak with one of
You may be prescribed several medicines to
help with pain, sleep, or other symptoms.
Even though medicine can be an important
part of your treatment plan, know that drugs
alone are rarely the answer to chronic pain.
Take them as prescribed. Store them in a
secure, locked place. Do not take more than
you are supposed to or add over-the-counter
drugs or herbs without first talking to your
doctor or nurse.
Psychological counseling and support is part
of any treatment plan for people who have
chronic pain. Counselors can help you learn
how to cope with the stress, feeling alone,
and the disruptions that pain can cause.
Learning about your current coping skills
and new ways to cope can help as much as
any pain medicine.
When you are in pain, you might want to
limit your activities, but this can make the
problem worse. Your physical therapist will
work with you to plan a program you can
carry out at home. Exercise 30 minutes a day
3-4 times a week. The goal is to increase
strength, flexibility, and endurance so you
can prevent further injury and be active in
your daily life. When you begin an exercise
program, you may find yourself in more pain
at first because your body is out of shape,
not because your chronic pain is worse.
Maintain a program of exercise to sustain
When your pain level is lower, you may
want to push yourself to catch up things that
you have not been able to do. But, just like
an athlete in training, you need to slowly
build back to former activities. Learn to
pace yourself doing the same amount each
day. It may be helpful to keep a journal to
see how active you are each day and to
become aware of how your pain varies. Be
sure to alternate rest and movement
throughout the day.
Develop a plan for pain flare-ups
Talk to your doctor about the difference
between a flare and pain that could call for
further evaluation. Keep a written plan
ready for when your chronic pain flares up.
Remind yourself that pain flares happen and
rarely call for more tests or doctors visits.
Knowing that this is a flare is the first step.
Make a list of things that might trigger a
flare up for you. Your flare plan may
include ways to pace or change your activity,
skills to help you relax or distract yourself,
how to use heat and cold to relieve your
pain, or short term changes in your
medicines. Ask for Health Facts for You
#5761, Managing a Pain Flare for more
ideas on dealing with pain flares.
Resources for people with chronic pain
American Pain Foundation
201 N Charles Street, Suite 710
Baltimore MD 21201-4111
The American Chronic Pain Association
PO Box 850
Rocklin, CA 95677
Phone: (916) 632-0922
Fax: (916) 632-3208
National Chronic Pain Outreach Association
7979 Old Georgetown Road, Suite 100,
Bethesda, MD 20814-2429,
References for foods and medicines that
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright ©9/2017 University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#5298.