Coping with Chronic Pain
Chronic pain changes your life, sometimes making it difficult to work, sleep, socialize and perform other daily activities. It can also strain relationships with family and friends, or make you feel depressed and anxious. The good news is that there are medications and other treatments that can provide pain relief. Learning how to control chronic pain is just as important for your emotional well-being as it is for your physical health.
In this section, we will suggest some coping strategies for managing the pain and some of its consequences. (15)
Acknowledge Your Feelings and Regain Control of Your Life
At some point, you’ll probably feel sad, angry and/or anxious about vulvodynia’s impact on your life. These are common feelings among women with vulvodynia and it helps to discuss them with a family member, friend or health care professional. Some women find that writing in a daily journal helps them to deal with their feelings.
You do have to be careful that negative emotions don’t become paralyzing and dominate your life. In the beginning, it is common for women with vulvodynia to feel that the pain has taken over their life. To overcome feeling helpless and regain control of your life, first you have to accept the pain and then you have to ‘take ownership’ of it. This involves being realistic about what you can or can’t do and not allowing your physical limitations to define who you are. It really makes a difference when you view the glass as ‘half full’ rather than ‘half empty.’ Many people have chronic pain and some lead happy and fulfilling lives, while others do not. What makes the difference is choosing to focus on your strengths and enjoy the activities that you are able to do, instead of dwelling on what you cannot do. Simply put, you can have a rewarding life in spite of chronic pain. An important part of this process is developing a positive attitude, which can take time and practice. Substitute negative thoughts such as, “I’m never going to feel better,” with say “I’m doing everything I can to feel better.” Negative thoughts cause anxiety, which intensifies pain. Maintaining a positive attitude takes the focus off your pain and helps to keep anxiety in check, which helps you feel better both emotionally and physically.
Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle
A nutritious diet, adequate sleep and daily exercise are important for everyone, especially people with chronic pain. Eat a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruits, limit simple carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, and drink at least 6 glasses of water daily. If you need guidance on healthy eating, see a nutritionist. Since sleep, mood and pain are closely linked, it’s important to get enough restorative sleep. If you’re not sleeping 7 or 8 hours each night, or have difficulty falling asleep because of pain, talk to your provider. Although many people with chronic pain hesitate to exercise, unused muscles generally cause more pain than toned, flexible ones. Research shows that aerobic exercise boosts the body’s natural painkillers and enhances mood. Under the guidance of a health care professional, choose an appropriate exercise program. You don’t have to overdo it, e.g., you can start by walking 10 minutes a day. Everyday stress can also worsen pain, but you can learn to control it with meditation or relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and yoga. Discuss stress-relieving strategies with your provider or a psychologist. Some helpful relaxation audio can be found at the following link: https://www.theacpa.org/pain-management-tools/relaxation-audio/.
Be an Active Participant in Your Care
You are a very important member of your health care team. Educate yourself about your condition and don’t hesitate to ask questions. Work with your provider to achieve your goals.
Try a Multi-Modal Treatment Approach
There may not be simple solutions to chronic pain, but that doesn’t mean improvement isn’t possible. Many treatment options exist and you can try a combination of treatments to relieve your pain. You may want to consider a regimen that includes both medical and complementary strategies. No single treatment works equally well for all women with vulvodynia and you’ll probably have to try many treatments before you find the ones that work best for you. Many women find that combining medication, physical therapy and a complementary treatment, such as acupuncture or massage, provides the greatest relief. Psychological counseling should also be considered if you feel anxious or depressed, or want to discuss your sex life or close relationships.
Spend Your Energy Wisely
Pain can impose limitations on one’s ability to perform certain activities. Some women find it helpful to alternate rest and activity throughout the day because ‘overdoing it’ can lead to increased pain. On the other hand, you don’t want to fall into a cycle of inactivity that causes muscle tightness and weakness, which contributes to pain. You need to determine the right balance of activity and rest for your physical and mental well-being.
Managing a Flare-Up
By keeping a pain diary, you can learn which activities make your pain worse and keep them to a minimum. However, sometimes you can’t avoid certain activities or a flare-up occurs out of the blue. Discuss with your provider, in advance, how to manage a flare-up. These situations often require taking an additional medication and self-help measures, such as a sitz bath or lying down. Specific relaxation techniques or simply engaging in activities you find relaxing, e.g., listening to music or watching a movie, can also help.
As you seek ways to manage your pain, reach out to other women in need. Sharing what you’ve experienced may be of great benefit to other women and helping others can make you feel good about yourself.