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Ways to Manage Your Arthritis Pain

Pain Management Options

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Updated October 18, 2013

Pain has been defined scientifically as an unpleasant, emotional and sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Most types of arthritis are associated with pain that can be divided into two general categories: acute and chronic. Acute pain is temporary. Chronic pain ranges from mild to severe, and can last weeks, months, years, or even a lifetime.

Chronic pain can be distressing because it affects people physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. It can make it difficult to work and keep up with responsibilities at home. It can negatively impact quality of life.

Pain Can Vary

Chronic pain is a major health problem and because it can be debilitating, it is important to understand what causes pain and the variable nature of pain.

Evaluating What Works

Better ways to manage pain are continually being sought. With pain relief as the goal, arthritis patients usually try various pain management techniques before they determine what works best for them. The success or failure of a particular treatment is individual. What works for one person may not work for another.

Pain Medications

Medications can be used to reduce pain. Commonly prescribed pain medications include:

  • Analgesics (pain relievers and narcotic painkillers)
  • NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)

Pain medications help achieve some level of comfort, but they do little to change the disease state. The amount of pain medication used must be controlled since there are known side effects.

Exercise

Exercise can help maintain function and lessen pain. People with arthritis should always discuss exercise plans with their doctor. Some exercises may be off-limits for people with a particular type of arthritis or when joints are swollen and inflamed.

Hydrotherapy / Warm Water Therapy

Warm water therapy can decrease pain and stiffness. Exercising in a pool, swim spa, or hot tub may be easier because water takes weight off of painful joints. Heat and movement in combination can relieve pain.

Rest

Pain can also be an indicator of the need for rest. It is important to pay attention to the signal and allow the body the required time to recharge. Inflammation decreases during a restful phase. But, too much rest is counterproductive. It is essential to strike a balance between rest and exercise.

Massage

Massage therapy can hasten pain relief, soothe stiff sore muscles, and reduce inflammation and swelling. As muscles relax and circulation is increased, pain is decreased.

TENS Units

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) utilizes low-voltage electrical stimulation to the nerves to block pain signals to the brain. Electrodes are placed on the skin and emit the electrical charge. This is used primarily for chronic, localized pain which is intractable.

Surgery

Often viewed as a last resort option, surgery can be performed with the goal of eliminating pain in a specific joint. Joint replacement surgery has become more common over the years and is regarded as a viable option when conservative treatment has failed. The damaged and painful joint is removed and replaced with a prosthesis. Other surgical options include:

  • arthrodesis (fusion)
  • synovectomy
  • re-section
  • arthroscopy

Meditation / Relaxation

Meditation and relaxation can ease muscle tension and help fight fatigue. Relaxation techniques may reduce:

Deep breathing

Deep breathing involves clearing the mind by breathing in and out, slowly, deeply, and rhythmically. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, releasing tension.

Progressive Relaxation / Creative Imagery

Progressive relaxation involves lying on your back to systematically tense and relax each part of your body. The relaxation works toward controlling pain. Following progressive relaxation, the mind can be engaged into imagining a pleasant scene. As the mind is occupied with the scene, stress levels diminish, as do pain levels.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback uses a combination of relaxation, visualization, and signals from a machine to gain control of pain. As you are attached by electrodes to a machine, you are taught to control blood pressure, muscle tension, heart rate, and temperature.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is rooted in physical medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral psychology. The objectives of occupational therapy are:

  • to help the pain patient determine which activities or behaviors intensify pain
  • teach methods for decreasing the amount of time in pain
  • use techniques to decrease pain intensity
  • help patients become more functional in daily activities and in the workplace
  • introduce a lifestyle based on good health habits

Pain management techniques used can include:

  • body mechanics
  • joint protection
  • conserving energy
  • exercise
  • developing a focus on abilities rather than limitations
  • using adaptive equipment and assistive devices
  • relaxation techniques

Heat

Morning stiffness is often relieved by the use of hot showers or baths. The warmth of the water relaxes muscles and eases the stiffness. Also beneficial are assistive devices and equipment such as:

Paraffin wax baths for the hands, feet, and elbows have also been utilized for pain management.

Cold

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is a preferred treatment for some people as opposed to heat therapy. The cold works to relieve pain by numbing nerve endings in affected areas of the body. It also decreases activity of body cells and slows blood flow, resulting in decreased inflammation. Cold compresses, wrapping a plastic bag filled with ice cubes, or frozen gel packs can be applied locally. People who have Raynaud's phenomenon should avoid this method.

Pain Clinics

The objective of a pain clinic is to offer some pain management to people with prolonged pain who cannot be helped by medical and surgical treatment options. The goal is to diminish the pain as much as possible and maximize the quality of life within the patient's limitations. The approach is usually holistic and may encompass:

Mutual Support

Mutual support can make an important contribution to pain management. Those living with pain can share insight and draw inspiration from others. People afflicted with pain experience similar difficulties, challenges, and limitations. A unique understanding of what it is like to face these problems connect people to each other. 

Sources:

NIH Publications No. 01-4855, No. 01-4856

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