Chronic neck pain can severely reduce quality of life but many patients are only being given palliative treatments, enduring failed surgical interventions, or muddling through with alternative pain therapies of which they’re unsure.
In a forum at PAINWeek 2013, Dr. Ted Jones of the Behavioral Medicine Institute, Knoxville, Tennessee, noted a 5-step strategy for coping with chronic pain that can help patients improve their quality of life by empowering them to change their perceptions of pain. The 5 steps are:
While this programme won’t see you throwing out your pain meds or cancelling any necessary surgery it may help you manage your symptoms of chronic neck pain and make life that little bit better.
Knowing what’s causing your neck pain, your treatment options, their risks and benefits, and the side effects of medications can all help you to get a handle on your pain. What we don’t know can hurt us, especially if we inadvertently mix medications that shouldn’t be mixed, or engage in a type of therapy that’s contraindicated for our condition.
Instead of wondering if your pain medications are addictive, or if a new symptom is connected to your condition or your treatment, ask. If your doctor is not receptive to this perfectly reasonable request for information then switch your doctor until you find one who takes the time to help you with pain management. It can also help to talk to a pain management specialist about how pain actually arises in the body, as this can give you a good idea of how strategies to minimize pain actually work.
As hard as it is, there is a difference between accepting the reality of a situation, ignoring it, and catastrophizing. When faced with chronic neck pain, especially pain that is unlikely to go away and which may well worsen with time, it is common to let your mind race away and see the rest of your life as being colored with pain. Your options, your enjoyment of life might suddenly appear awfully limited but in many cases this catastrophising is a result of not understanding your condition. If your doctor simply tells you that you have progressive arthritis in your spine, or a chronic autoimmune disease that impairs mobility, it is easy to see how quickly you might assume that your ‘normal’ life is over and that activities you enjoyed before are a thing of the past.
Instead, it can help to try to regard pain as not necessarily equating with suffering, to not see acceptance as giving in but as a tool with which to look at things pragmatically. Carefully accepting your limitations can help prevent the feeling that all is lost. Instead of ‘why me?’ switch to a ‘what now?’ attitude and you’ll likely find that there are still plenty of things you can continue doing, and new ways to carry on enjoying your former favorite activities.
One major contributing factor to chronic pain conditions is a feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed. Perhaps a guided meditation class can help you form some tools for getting through everyday stresses and dealing with pain a little more easily. Maybe you’ll find some stress relief in a tai chi class, or yoga, or even a more focused biofeedback consultation. If you find that your mind starts focusing on, and even amplifying pain signals as soon as you’re not busy with some task or other then consider carrying a mindfulness meditation for pain relief with you on your commute, when walking the dog, or when you’re doing dishes or so forth. Learning to fill the silence with calm, relaxing thoughts may help you push out the pain.
A common reaction to a diagnosis of a chronic spine condition as a cause of neck pain is to jump into life and make the most of things ‘while you can.’ Although it’s great to make the most of your opportunities this can be a dangerous mindset to get into as it rests on the assumption that at some point your inability to do certain things makes life less worthwhile. There’s also the sad irony that throwing yourself into things can lead to a premature burnout, whereas a slow and steady approach may see you enjoying a more active lifestyle for many more years.
Find some balance so that you can enjoy your activities for longer. This may mean cutting an activity short if your body’s telling you to stop, or simply sitting something out if you’re having a bad day for pain and letting yourself rest until the next opportunity. Those who are used to depriving themselves of sleep, running on caffeine, and both working hard and playing hard may have to pull back in some areas of their life in order to manage their pain.
Many chronic pain patients find unusual ways in which to cope with their pain. This can be something as simple as a heat pad draped over the back of the couch at night while you’re watching TV, playing video games as a distraction when pain is particularly bad, or booking a flotation tank session if you had a bad night’s sleep and need reinvigorating. Finding such techniques can help you cut down on your pain medications and get back up to speed more quickly. There’s also the ‘breath mint’ technique which involves focusing on holding a breath mint in your mouth until it dissolves, by which time you may find that you can push through the pain flare-up and get on without needing that extra pain pill.
Managing chronic neck pain isn’t just about filling your pain meds prescription over and over. A thorough approach may include group sessions to help share strategies for pain management, individual counselling to work out if there are attitudes and beliefs holding you back from achievable goals, and developing coping strategies and communication strategies so that both you and those around you know how to best cope with your condition.
Although many alternative therapies for pain management and less biomechanical neck pain treatments are not covered by insurance there is an increasing awareness that something like the 5-step plan to managing chronic neck pain helps patients live a happier and fuller life.