8 Ways to Cope With Chronic Pain

Living with chronic pain is a constant battle. It impacts every area of your life, from managing day-to-day tasks to relationships and your job. It puts a strain on you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Millions of people live with the effects of chronic pain every day. While medication and other treatments may help, it's often not enough to control all of the symptoms and give your life back. When chronic pain isn't well treated, living with it can feel unbearable.

Physical therapist examining man's back
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Effects of Chronic Pain

Living with chronic pain limits what you can do. In some cases, it can lead to what's known as disuse syndrome, which is basically the medical way of saying “use it or lose it.”

It makes sense, though. You're wired to avoid pain, so you don't do the things that lead to it. But what about when most of what you do increases your pain? Eventually, you become weak and lose your stamina, which makes activities harder and more likely to hurt, and the downward spiral continues.

Your psychological state plays a huge role in the effect chronic pain has on your life. If you or someone you know has chronic pain, you may notice irritability, anger, depression, and difficulty concentrating. The psychological side effects of living with chronic pain can be as debilitating as the pain itself. This is what makes chronic pain such a complex condition.

The eight steps outlined here can help you live better in spite of your chronic pain.

Step 1: Develop Coping Skills

While you may see a grim picture when you think of living with chronic pain, keep in mind that these are worst-case scenarios. In reality, many people continue to live healthy, productive lives despite the pain.

This is because they have found ways to cope with the pain, often through a combination of medications, alternative treatments, lifestyle changes, and positive coping skills.

Step 2: Exercise

Don’t lose it; use it!

Not moving is bad for your body and can lead to more pain. Talk to your healthcare provider or a physical therapist about a safe exercise program that's right for you. It should be geared to your current fitness level and take all of your diagnoses into account.

Don't just think of the gym, either. You can exercise at home on your own or with streaming videos or DVDs, or you can find a rehabilitative exercise class in your area.

When you live with chronic pain, exercise helps you maintain your mobility. It also keeps your muscles active and your joints flexible, which can help ease the symptoms and effects of chronic pain.

Regular exercise also prevents disuse syndrome, a condition in which muscles become weak from inactivity. Weak muscles are more vulnerable to pain and can even cause other injuries.

Do get guidance from your healthcare team before you start, though. You want to make sure you're doing the right types of exercise so you don't do further harm.

Step 3: Find the Right Medication

You may need to try several medications before you find the best one(s) for managing your pain. While it can be frustrating to try different prescriptions, sampling a variety may ultimately lead you to better pain control.

You may be worried about taking medication for the rest of your life, as well as living with its side effects. You may also be concerned about painkiller addiction.

While most pain medications are safe and effective when taken correctly, you should mention any concerns to your practitioner. He or she can help you weigh the advantages against the disadvantages as well as fully explain the risks associated with taking them.

If you're having problems with your meds, ask your healthcare provider about making a change. Suddenly stopping or changing your pain medication can have unexpected side effects that may be worse, or even dangerous.

Step 4: Try Complementary and Alternative Treatments

Used alone or combined with medications, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) can be a powerful tool in learning to live with chronic pain.

Examples of commonly used CAM for chronic pain include:

Step 5: Learn to Relax

Stress causes muscle tension, which can increase the amount of pain you feel. Allowing muscles to relax reduces strain and decreases pain sensations. Learning to relax your body can help you control your pain without the use of additional medications.

Relaxation is a pain management tool that can be used on its own, or in combination with other treatments. Approaches that can help decrease stress and muscle tension, which can heighten the intensity of chronic pain, include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Qigong
  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery

An added benefit of yoga, tai chi, and qigong is that they do double duty: relieve stress while providing moderate, gentle exercise.

Step 6: Get Help

Don’t try to do everything by yourself. It doesn’t hurt to get a little help now and then, especially on your hardest days.

Become a good delegator. Let your neighbor pick something up at the store for you, or have your mom watch the kids, or get the kids to help with housework. Free up some time to rest or complete minor chores that won’t aggravate your pain.

Step 7: Seek Support

Two in 10 Americans has suffered from chronic pain at some point in their lives. Chances are that someone close to you understands exactly what living with chronic pain is like. You may both benefit by talking about and sharing your struggles.

Support groups can be great, as well. Not only do your peers have advice and tips on what techniques and products worked for them, but they can also be a sympathetic ear when you need to talk.

Step 8: Do Your Own Research

Several websites exist solely to provide information about chronic pain, and many others are related to specific illnesses and injuries. These sites are a great resource for general information as well as news about medications and treatments. Many sites offer book reviews as well.

Keeping yourself informed and educated about your condition can help you maintain a good quality of life while living with chronic pain.

Here are a few good places to start:

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dahlhamer J, Lucas J, Zelaya C, et al. Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults - United States, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2018;67(36):1001-1006. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6736a2

  2. Dueñas M, Ojeda B, Salazar A, Mico JA, Failde I. A review of chronic pain impact on patients, their social environment and the health care systemJ Pain Res. 2016;9:457–467. Published 2016 Jun 28. doi:10.2147/JPR.S105892

  3. Booth FW, Roberts CK, Laye MJ. Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseasesCompr Physiol. 2012;2(2):1143–1211. doi:10.1002/cphy.c110025

  4. Ahmad AH, Zakaria R. Pain in Times of StressMalays J Med Sci. (Spec Issue):52–61.

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.