5 Lifestyle Changes for Coping With Chronic Pain

After your doctor tells you how to manage your medications, he'll recommend certain lifestyle changes to help you live better despite your chronic pain.

It's easy to think the power to improve your symptoms is all in the pills, but it's really in the lifestyle changes that help you live well, support your body to heal, and promote your own well-being. It turns out, all those things your doctor tells you after he gives you the prescription is the best medicine there is.

If you live with chronic pain, here are five lifestyle changes you need to make right now:

1. Change your diet. Your body needs the right ingredients to support your immune system, reduce and prevent inflammation, and repair cell damage. If you're still eating refined sugars, simple carbohydrates, and processed, fried, fatty, and fast foods, it's time to make a big change. Clean out your pantry and fridge and start from scratch. Study up on what constitutes a healthy diet and consult with a nutritionist or dietician. Then, go shopping for:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables in as close to their original state as possible. Applesauce is good, but apples are better. Frozen veggies in cream sauce are healthier than French fries, but steamed, baked, or raw fresh veggies are even better.
  • Whole grains: Buy breads, cereals, and pastas made with whole wheat, rye, spelt, or other whole grains. Make sure the label says, "whole grain" not just "multigrain."
  • Healthy proteins: Fish, chicken, turkey, and small amounts of grass-fed beef and pork, or nuts, beans, and legumes are all good choices.
  • Healthy oils: Go for olive, canola, and other "heart-healthy" oils.
  • Low-fat dairy: Yogurt, cheese, milk, and other calcium-rich dairy foods supply protein, electrolytes, and calcium your body needs. Even a little ice cream can do a body good.

2. Exercise. Regular exercise is essential for cardiovascular health and muscle and bone strength plus it boosts your immune system, manages weight control, improves joint flexibility, boosts energy and mood, and decreases stress, anxiety, and depression. It also focuses your attention on external activities (other than your pain), gets you out of the house and structures your time around a healthy activity.

  • Take a walk, bike, swim, or use cardiovascular machines like treadmills or elliptical trainers every day.
  • Do strength training with hand weights, weight machines, or resistance bands, or do bodyweight exercises like yoga or push-ups.
  • Do flexibility exercises like yoga, Pilates, or simple stretches.

3. Sleep. Your body repairs all the minor (and major) injuries and stresses it sustains in a day while you sleep. It also clears your mind from stress and helps you process information. That's why, when you live with chronic pain, sleep is essential. Aim for at least eight hours. If you get more, that's even better.

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time.
  • Keep your room cool and dark.
  • Avoid television, computers, and electronics for an hour before bedtime.
  • Use your bed for sleep and sex only.
  • Talk to your doctor about when to take pain medications if you need them at night and if natural or prescription sleep aids are safe for you.

4. Take stress reduction seriously. Stress causes your body to release hormones that cause inflammation. Inflammation is a major source of pain, heart disease, and other serious and chronic health conditions. Stress also causes you to tense your muscles, which can increase pain sensations. Studies show that stress reduction activities (especially meditation), when practiced regularly, have a positive impact on health and well-being and can effectively reduce pain.

  • Simplify your life and schedule.
  • Work less and rest more.
  • De-clutter your environment.
  • Learn to meditate or engage in other mindfulness activities.

5. Have more fun. We know it's miserable living in pain. That's why it's essential you keep your mind off your misery and focused on the good things in life. 

  • Schedule an enjoyable activity every day.
  • Stay as busy and active as your health allows.
  • Nurture your relationships and stay connected with your friends and family.
  • Play with your dog, read to your children, go to the movies, dance, sing, be silly, and make it a point to enjoy and be grateful for the good things all around you, even on days with pain.

After you've encacted these changes, consider recording your "pain score" in a daily log. Also write down the foods you ate, the activities you were engaged in, and your stress levels. Share the information with your doctor who will be able to help you determine your triggers.