9 Things That Make Chronic Pain Worse

Quitting bad habits could help relieve symptoms

Changing a few simple aspects of your lifestyle can put you in better control of your chronic pain, and may actually decrease the pain you experience. In fact, you'll likely be surprised if you take a good look at these nine things that can make your pain worse, and find any in your own life that can be improved.

If you want to have less pain tomorrow than today, and next week than this week, it's worth taking a close look at what you can do to change your life and get rid of your pain.



Man smoking cigarette

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There's no question about it, studies tell us, smoking makes chronic pain worse. And not only does it make pain you already have more intense, but you are also more likely to develop chronic pain in the first place. People who smoke are almost three times more likely to develop chronic back pain, and it's associated with many other types of pain as well.

Tobacco and nicotine use decreases the amount of oxygen that reaches your muscles—oxygen that is required for efficient muscle use.

Ever tried to go all day without eating? Well, that’s what your muscles can feel like when you smoke. Smoking can also cause fatigue and lung disorders, and it can make it harder for the body to heal itself. It is best for your body if you quit smoking, especially if you have chronic pain.

If you smoke, open up your quit smoking toolbox today.


Being a Couch Potato

Man sleeping on couch

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A sedentary lifestyle can lead to muscle disuse syndrome. In other words, use it or lose it.

Over time, muscles that are barely used lose their strength and endurance. Weak muscles are much less efficient, meaning it takes more work to do simple tasks, like taking a shower.

Not only do weak muscles lead to weaker muscles, but weak muscles can lead to falls. And falls can lead to more pain and less movement, and... You get the picture. There are hundreds of studies that hail the pain reduction benefits of even small increases in exercises. Even if you start very small, start somewhere.

You can avoid disuse syndrome by learning safe, effective exercises for your condition. Check out these ways to beat a sedentary lifestyle that you can begin today.


Stressing Out

Frustrated woman pushing shopping cart in grocery store

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Stress increases your heart rate, which makes you breathe faster and tightens your muscles. In addition to this, stress can cause agitation and anxiety, which is known to intensify feelings of pain.

Practice techniques that help calm you down, such as deep breathing and relaxation.

If you can reduce your stress, you can reduce some of your excessive pain.

It's not just the emotional aspect of stress, however, which adds to pain. Stress releases stress hormones such as cortisone, which in turn cause inflammation and yes, more pain.

Start learning about stress management today, but don't get stressed about it. There are actually many enjoyable and even fun ways to lower stress in your life.


Focusing on Your Pain

Anxious mixed race woman sitting at table

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Your brain can only focus on so much at one time. Have you ever forgotten you had a headache because you were busy?

Turning your attention elsewhere decreases the amount of energy your brain can spend on your pain. Allow something else to take center stage and you can decrease your pain experience. On the other hand, giving pain your full attention means that everything else gets blocked out.

If you find yourself centering in on your pain, it doesn't always work to simply tell yourself you won't think about it. We're human, and saying we won't think about something often makes us focus on it even more. Next time you catch yourself focusing on your pain, try one of these ​distraction techniques to help manage your pain.


Being Non-Compliant With Pain Meds

Various pills lying on a white surface

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Your healthcare provider prescribes pain meds for a reason: to decrease your pain experience. Despite this, you may be scared of addiction, or even failing a drug test. You may not like your medication side effects. Maybe you just want to detoxify your system.

These concerns are perfectly normal, but consider this: quitting your pain medication cold turkey can lead to worse problems, especially if you are taking opioids or anticonvulsants.

If you are interested in pursuing alternative treatment strategies, involve your healthcare provider first.


Avoiding Your Healthcare Provider

Doctor and patient looking at digital tablet

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Your healthcare provider should just assume you still have pain, and everything is status quo, right? Wrong. Every day, advances in research increase our knowledge about disorders and medications. Your practitioner is your number one resource. Not only can he assess how you are progressing, but he knows if something is newly available that may be better for your condition. You don’t have to see your medical professional every week, but make sure to schedule routine visits to discuss your case. You may just learn something new.


Eating Junk Food

Girl eating hamburger

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Refined sugar and saturated fats taste great, but they don’t give your body the fuel it needs to operate efficiently. Remember, efficient muscles use less energy, saving you effort with every move.

We are just beginning to understand the importance of good nutrition in chronic pain, but what we've learned so far has some pain physicians believing that good nutrition may be one of the best approaches to managing chronic pain.

We know that junk food causes inflammation, what's now been coined the "inflammation diet" and that fruit and vegetables usually do the opposite. But do we really need a host of studies to tell us this?

We may hate to admit it, but most of us feel better when we eat our vegetables and drink more water. Maybe it’s time to put down that doughnut and coffee and start the day out right with some whole-grain cereal or protein-rich yogurt. Not sure where to start? Talk to your healthcare provider, or consult a dietitian.


Drinking Alcohol

Bar tender making cocktails

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Not only does alcohol decrease the rate of transmission of some kinds of nerve impulses in the brain, but it can also interact harmfully with medications. Believe it or not, this includes over-the-counter painkillers. Moderate to heavy drinkers also have a greater risk of heart and lung disease. If you have chronic pain, it’s best to leave the bottle alone.


Overdoing It

Man relaxing in a lounge chair

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Overdoing things on days when you feel good can have disastrous consequences.

While it may be very tempting to tackle your entire to-do list on a day when you have virtually no pain, you can set yourself back for several days as you recover. It is better to keep a steady level of activity from day to day—one that you know your body can handle.

This final tip on what to avoid so that you don't worsen your pain may be the hardest to follow. When you have a day when you feel good you may frantically try to catch up—thinking that you'll feel better if you do so. Though it's tempting, pace yourself.

Many people find it helpful to keep a pain journal. It can be hard to see the effects of overdoing it, especially if your pain worsens a few days or a week later. By journaling your symptoms, many of the things that make your pain worse, or instead make your pain better, will become much clearer.

9 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.
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  3. Furlanetto KC, Mantoani LC, Bisca G, et al. Reduction of physical activity in daily life and its determinants in smokers without airflow obstruction. Respirology. 2014 Apr;19(3):369-75. doi: 10.1111/resp.12236

  4. Ambrose KR, Golightly YM. Physical exercise as non-pharmacological treatment of chronic pain: Why and when. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol.

  5. Abdallah CG, Geha P. Chronic pain and chronic stress: two sides of the same coin? Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2017;1. doi:10.1177/2470547017704763

  6. MedlinePlus. Opiate and opioid withdrawl.

  7. Harvard Health Publishing. Can diet heal chronic pain?

  8. NIH-National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Harmful interactions. Mixing alcohol with medications.

  9. González-reimers E, Santolaria-fernández F, Martín-gonzález MC, Fernández-rodríguez CM, Quintero-platt G. Alcoholism: a systemic proinflammatory condition. World J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(40):14660-71. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i40.14660

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