One of the things a lot of my readers may not know about me is that I live with chronic pain. Pain was in fact one of the reasons I began exercising in 2008. I had fallen and dislocated my knee the year before, and what had been nagging but tolerable arthritis achiness in my knees until then developed into constant pain that had begun to effect my quality of life.
My doctor had told me repeatedly that exercise would be very helpful for the arthritis pain, but I hadn’t been ready to hear it. When the injury increased the level of pain I experienced, I began to be more receptive to the message. Many things culminated in 2008 to trigger a fundamental behavior change, and the pain was one of them.
I’ve talked before about the various health issues I was dealing with back then. Blood sugar issues, hormonal issues, rising blood pressure, poor lipid markers, migraines, obesity. It was a ‘perfect storm’ of chronic, nagging conditions that were beginning to effect my quality of life, and fill me with worry about my future and that of my kids. Was I setting them up for the same health issues? I was their primary female role model. The way I cared for myself would be their lifelong model of self-care. I needed to do better. Exercise was the one thing I knew would benefit me and potentially improve all those conditions, but that I’d never been able to do consistently. 2008 was when everything came together and I made the changes. Finally. And exercise was life-changing, in so many ways. Almost all the health issues I was dealing with have resolved in the years since, and I credit exercise. Unfortunately, while exercise has been immensely helpful in mitigating the pain and dysfunction, it has not ‘cured’ my arthritis. I still deal with chronic pain and stiffness. So today I’m going to share some of the ways I’ve learned to manage my pain levels so I can live a productive and enjoyable life. I still have pain, but it doesn’t have the same impact on my quality of life as it used to.
Exercise. The doctors and scientists aren’t lying when they say exercise improves arthritis symptoms. Studies show again and again that exercise improves the short term and long term experience of pain. It also improves joint strength and flexibility, and bone density. When I first started exercising I dealt with sore muscles after workouts for a while, but I began to notice that my knees didn’t hurt when I was moving, and for several hours afterward. In other words, exercise gave me an immediate, but temporary reprieve from the pain. This was motivating. Over time, I observed that my legs grew stronger and my agility and confidence increased. Climbing stairs became less painful because I learned to use my hip and thigh muscles in ways that took the pressure off my knee joint. Exercise continued to give me daily, short term pain reprieve, and increased my long term functionality and flexibility. I now use exercise as my primary ‘defense’ against pain, both in the immediate short term and as a long term hedge against continued deterioration. Lifting weights has increased my bone density and made my joints more stable. While I still experience pain, I no longer worry about falling or fear that my knees will give out. I’ve learned what I can and can’t do, and I’ve improved my confidence to do many things I used to be afraid to do.
Sleep. The difference in my pain levels is profound when I am not sleeping well. A good night’s sleep means an almost pain free day. When I am fatigued, my knees ache. I’ve learned how important it is to prioritize sleep, and recognize the difference it makes to my quality of life. It is still hard for me to shut down my mind after a busy day, but I’m working on things like turning off electronics earlier in the evening and making sure not to have caffeine later in the day, things that make it harder to fall asleep.
Pain medication. I resisted pain meds for a LONG time. I believed that resorting to pain meds was ‘weak’, and that if I just ate the right diet, I wouldn’t need meds. There’s a lot of that kind of thinking in the fad diet world. It’s a form of victim blaming. “If you have a problem, you obviously just aren’t eating clean enough. If all your problems don’t go away when you eat the ‘right’ diet, then you’re doing it wrong. Pain is caused by toxins in your food, or by gluten (I went grain fee for almost a year and there was no change in my pain levels) or by dairy or whatever other food the diet-of-the-day blamed everything on.” Two years ago, I began to sink into a depression because of my pain. It was exhausting. I recognized what was happening to me, and I talked to my doctor. She referred me to a pain expert, who helped me create a pain medication treatment plan. We didn’t get it ‘right’ immediately, it took some trial and error, but we eventually found a combination of two different pain meds in low doses that control my pain and allow me to stay active (which keeps my heart and body healthy and strong). I no longer allow myself to feel ‘guilt’ for taking medication. Seeking adequate medical treatment has improved my quality of life dramatically, made me a better mother and wife, and allowed me to engage fully in a life that I now enjoy.
Physical therapy. With the physical therapist I work with as part of my pain management program, I’ve learned new ways of sitting, standing, walking and sleeping that have decreased the level of pain I experience. I admit that for a long time I dismissed the idea of physical therapy, thinking that I was strong and already did all the exercises I needed to do. I was wrong. My physical therapist doesn’t make me do exercises – she knows I do exercises on my own. She has taught me to tune into the way I’m moving (or not moving) in my day-to-day activities that can affect my knees and my pain levels. I am glad I got over my preconceived notions about physical therapy. It has made a difference.
Massage. I’m a massage therapist so work on my own legs regularly. My thigh and calf muscles get very tight on the side I injured, and deep massage helps them relax.
What Doesn’t Work (for me)
Diet shenanigans. I tried it all. Nothing made a difference, except low carb. Low carb made it worse, I suspect because I was recovering poorly from workouts. All the other fads I tried were useless in regards to my pain levels.
Accupuncture. I tried it and didn’t notice a difference. I really enjoyed it though! It was super relaxing.
Chiropractic. Didn’t notice a difference.
‘Barefoot’ shoes. I gave these a real shot. They actually made things worse though. My knees feel better when I have cushioning to take some of the impact of walking.
What Might or Might Not Work
Supplements. I take turmeric and glucosamine on the suggestion of my doctor. I don’t know for sure if they help, but they are cheap, so I take them on the off chance they are doing something.
So there you go. There are more things for me to try. I will keep trying them. I know that some things will work and some will not. And I have found things that work already, and my life has improved because of them.
If you take nothing else from this post, please take this: It is OK to seek medical treatment. It is not ‘weakness’ to take medication if that medication improves your quality of life and allows you to engage fully in activities that you enjoy. There is too much ‘medicine shaming’ in the fad diet community. Eating well, sleeping well and exercise can improve your life in many ways and I absolutely encourage everyone to do all three. You may be amazed at just how powerful a ‘medicine’ sleep, exercise and good food in adequate amounts can be. But sometimes there are things that sleep, exercise and good food don’t fix. And seeking treatment for those things is not weak or shameful. It can give you back your life. Do not allow yourself to be shamed out of seeking adequate and appropriate medical treatment for pain or any other condition that impacts your quality of life. Medicine shaming is one of the worst things to come out of the fad diet community. So many people are suffering needlessly.
Thank you for this. Medicine shaming – what an enormously powerful phrase. Nothing gets me ‘ragey’ more than seeing some personal trainer, with no medical qualifications/knowledge, going on about how if we all ate clean/paleo/sugar-free/whatever and just ‘moved more’ that we wouldn’t need all these evil medications…. GAAAAH! So thank you. Just THANK YOU xxx
Thankyou for sharing. I got a lot out of it and the year 2008 was the year I was forced to change my life because I was to sick already to do it for myself and I live with hip and knee pain but will never use my pain as an excuse for not exercising. You rock girl!!!
Wow Amber. Thanks so much for posting this. I was recently given the bad news I have osteoarthritis in my knee (I’m only 38 but my knees are that of a 70 year old). I was very upset to learn that I can’t run or do any more plymetric type activities. I’m trying to focus on what I can do (swim, bike, yoga, weights) but I have been feeling a bit sad that I’ve had to say goodbye to more crossfit type HIIT workouts and running. Your post came at just the right time for me because it gives me hope that maybe I’ll be able to dial up the intensity in the future again, given all that you seem able to do. Are there any exercises you find you have to avoid for your knee? I’ve noticed if I do too much leg stuff or lift too heavy I’m in quite a bit of pain at nighttime. Also, would you mind telling me what pain medication you find has worked for you? I too have been holding out, but for no good reason really. Anyway, thanks again for your post.
Why are you so certain that you “can’t run” and that you “have to say goodbye to more crossfit type HIIT workouts and running.” Are you just going by what some random doctor says? Try to find a way to minimize the impact of these activities. Investigate things like Chi Running and the Pose Method. And make sure you are getting enough fish oil which helps reduce inflammation.
Thank you for sharing this post. I am experiencing very similar knee issues. I am looking forward to learning more about how to pay attention to my body.
Eating well, sleeping well, exercise. The three main rules I live by. I have to, I also live with some arthritis due to many years of lots of running, which I still do because I enjoy it, just on less mileage now. Thank you for your insight!
I could have written that post! Exact same situation except my arthritis is in my neck. Thank you for that!
Thank you! I am sooooooooo sick of people thinking diet will cure everything.
I frequent an exercise forum where people are often told to ignore their doctors, take some whack-ass supplement, eat cleaner be it paleo, juicing, etc.
In some cases it’s extremely dangerous advice
One of the best posts I’ve read anywhere about health for a long time. Thank you, Amber! I also deal with chronic pain and realize that a pain specialist is probably what I need also, as my doc, who a great guy, is hesitant to treat pain and sleep medically. So much stigma.
I also tried acupuncture and didn’t care for it, but I’m not positive the person knew what she was doing; but foot reflexology! Oh, man! Relaxation to the Stars! : )
Thank you so much for sharing this. This is exactly what I’ve been going through. I too am a massage therapist. I have also been dealing with Rheumatoid arthritis. Due to fear of the medicine I chose to follow a gluten free diet which helped a little at first, then I considered grain free low carb., but I feel stuck in this obsessive/ restricted world. I just can’t do it. It’s been almost 2 years since I had a slice of pizza and most days that makes me angry. I tried all this due to my health I had already lost 87 lbs and really wanted those last 10. I have not been able to achieve that either…. I’m so confused I don’t know what else to try. But this vicious cycle I’m living in is not living.
Thanks for your no nonsense approach. As usual, you inspire me. i live with chronic pain. There is hope.
I love how down to earth Amber is. Those of us who have run the gamut in the quest for good health know that it’s easy to get caught up in the hype that is “alternative medicine”. Well, sometimes natural therapies just aren’t enough. This is such a realistic approach to ailments in a MODERN day world.
Thanks for posting your journey. I’ve had two frozen shoulders – very painful – one for three years and the other for two. What I learned from the first was the worsening effects of physical therapy. Sometimes all you can do is leave it alone and wait!
I wish I could write with laser-beam focus like you can! I agree 100% I was a very young recipient of two titanium hips because of my OsteoArthrits. I want to write about my journey but I go off on tangents…but, like you, I tried everything you mentioned and then some…including too many years of pain, no meds, and enduring all the “heal-yourself” comments and suggestions with my “healing” community.
Thank you for this post. Keep up the good work!
Right there with you sistah! Having a spinal fusion 6 years ago, arthritis is one of the things I deal with daily. Exercise improves it so much. I, too do not shy away from pain meds when I need them and, I find glucosamine does help, you actually don’t realize it until you stop taking it for a while '?
Thanks for sharing. I have about 30kg to lose, and huge amounts of pain in my body. I know being lighter will help the pain management, but the pain was terrible before I gained weight. I have cleaned up my diet hugely, but diet alone isn’t cutting it. But how do you get in exercise to get fitter and lighter when exercise exacerbates your pain? So I sit on my ass more and get heavier. Horrible circle that I am trying to get out of. Have been on a couple of kinds of pain meds a couple years ago, they did nothing, but might be time to try another kind…
This is a great post, I’d like to share it with my readers at Healthskills4Pain. I also live with chronic pain, and I’m passionate that people with chronic pain are given accurate, research-based information about what does and doesn’t have scientific support. It’s also incredibly important to me that people with chronic pain are encouraged to see that it’s not a death sentence, nor even a life sentence – it’s possible to have a wonderfully rich and active life despite having chronic pain. Thanks so much for posting.
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Thank you for posting your experiences here. It is not something I deal with but I know you help many!
Thanks from me too – very interesting. Polymyalgia Rheumatica here then a deterioration of an existing knee injury while I was struggling with the PMR. Physiotherapy saved me. The physio has taught me selected pilates which target the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, and as you say, support the knee. Exercise is definitely a way to stay relatively pain free.
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3 years ago I also struggled with many health issues, and when I started having severe blood pressure spikes I realized I had to deal with my obesity. I took up intermittent fasting which worked very well for me (I lost 70 pounds and now am in the middle of my healthy weight range). But I still struggled with chronic shoulder pain due to a shoulder impingement/frozen shoulder. The pain was so bad it kept me awake at night and often I would be in tears due to pain and lack of sleep. It was with me about 3 years. I started lifting weights as part of my shoulder rehab…part of my problem was weakness and imbalance in my shoulders due to decades of working hunched over a computer. At first, I could do no more than 5 pound dumbells and that was crazy hard. But I have been pain free for 6 months now, and recently have started “lifting heavy”. I can deadlift my bodyweight now and getting stronger every day and feeling younger and in better shape than I have ever been in my life aat 46. Anyway, thank you for your wonderful blog. It inspires me!