Chronic pain is often an annoying part of daily life. But there are ways to manage and reduce its intensity. I learned several useful techniques from physical therapist Sharlene Wing, PT. First, a little background about what contributes to chronic pain:
For some people, misaligned posture can cause imbalance in the back, hips, knees, or ankles. The result is often extra stress on the structure, causing pain. This makes it hard to find a stable, neutral position that would naturally hold a person upright. If the positions of sitting, standing, or walking, are not well supported, or are out of alignment, this puts more wear and tear on the joint surfaces, as well as on their supporting structures, such as ligaments, explains Sharlene.
The gravity of the situation
One big challenge for is to deal with the constant pull of gravity, finding positions where we can exercise or do repetitive activities without causing harm. Besides motion, gravity also causes problems when we are still, as sleeping in bed, or sitting for long periods. “Even when you are still, gravity is still a constant force,” says Sharlene, “causing joint creep, as joints succumb to gravitational pull and become misaligned.” This “joint creep” contributes to stiffness in the morning, or when we stand up after a two-hour movie.
Everyday strategies to reduce chronic pain
Sharlene has several easy and safe exercise suggestions to do at home. I have tried them and have noticed a significant reduction in back and joint pain.
- Before getting out of bed, spend about ten minutes stretching your legs out and doing ankle pumps and ankle circles. Gently move hips and knees to get the synovial fluid moving. (This fluid bathes the joints to reduce friction.) If the back feels stiff, one option is to create gentle traction while holding onto the headboard and pulling only as much as is comfortable. If you do this before your feet hit the floor, it gets all the joints ready for weight-bearing. (Sharlene advises caution if your shoulders are bothersome).
- Practice posture on a wall. With the back against the wall, touch the backs of the hands against the wall, arms turned outward to open the shoulders. Try to have the head, buttocks, and calves also touching the wall as much as possible, but not the lower back. Even if you can’t do all of this, says Sharlene, it is a good alignment practice, to lengthen and straighten as much as possible. If anything hurts, cautions Sharlene, don’t do it without consulting with a physical therapist.
- Try to be conscious of good posture alignment during day, whether getting in and out of the car, carrying things sitting at a desk, using a computer, or even during a movie. If you slouch, it should only be for short spans of time!
Pain is a warning sign that something is being stressed and should be addressed
Even though pain is annoying, says Sharlene, we can also think of it as a protective mechanism. “Your body is telling you that something is wrong and you should pay attention,” she says. “Often, for people with chronic pain, the symptom gets heightened, and can become a constant, dull ache,” she says. “it often helps to work with a physical therapist to ‘unlearn’ problematic positions or behavior, strengthen muscles to compensate for overstretched ligaments, and learn new ways of using the body to reduce pain.”