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.