"Take deep breaths. Drink lots of water. Get some extra sleep."
This is the prescription I tend to apply, at least initially, to all complaints of illness emanating from my three children. I find it's effective approximately 90% of the time. For the 10% of the time it's not effective, we escalate to mom... and occasionally from there, we head to the doctor. Nothing special here, just basic triage for childhood illness.
The problem I see is that adults often skip a step or two (or three) in this process. And there's a lot of scientific data to support the reliance on these initial steps in the management of chronic pain.
Take Deep Breaths
There's ample evidence to suggest that relaxation techniques and mindfulness exercises can significantly influence chronic pain management. This study, among dozens of high quality studies available (and hundreds more of lower quality), showed a >50% decrease in Total Pain Rating Index for 50% of the patients involved in the study. Granted, small sample... but really compelling results. Why did I pick this study to highlight? It was published in April 1982. This isn't new, folks.
An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results.
Drink Lots of Water
The link between dehydration and chronic pain is a little more recent, but still compelling. A recent study from the journal Psychophysiology linked hypohydration (not as severe as dehydration, but still not healthy... essentially, most of us are walking around hypohydrated) with lower pain sensitivity thresholds. We also know that the discs in the lower back require proper hydration for optimal functionality. Getting enough water also effects are immune system response. We've been told since we were kids to drink lots of water, it's just that none of us actually do that.
A preliminary study on how hypohydration affects pain perception
Get Some Sleep
Sleep hygiene is among the most overlooked elements of chronic pain management. This topic is admittedly made complicated by the 'chicken and egg' nature of problem - to manage chronic pain, one needs to get more sleep, but sleep is often inhibited by chronic pain symptoms. This nasty cycle is often addressed by sleep aid medications which are not indicated for long term use (and, as we well know, that doesn't stop them from being used long term). One way off of this hamster wheel is ensuring that relaxation and hydration are incorporated into daily habits. Along with mindfulness techniques, one must also incorporate a simple set of sleep management tips that are hard for people to come to grips with: going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, no television or other electronic devices in the bedroom, no alcohol or caffeine assumption. How many Americans, in chronic pain or not, can pull of that bedtime routine?
Pain & Sleep: Information from the National Sleep Foundation
No, not all chronic pain can be managed by taking deep breaths, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep. Some chronic pain has to be escalated to the care of medical professionals and these patients deserve the best, evidence-based care available. But far too often, chronic pain is diagnosed and immediately treated with surgery and/or medications without an attempt at patient self-regulation based on simple principles of mindfulness, proper diet, and good sleep hygiene - all three of which, when missing, significantly contribute, even exacerbate, chronic pain.
Take deep breaths. Drinks lots of water. Get some sleep.
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