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Learning to Manage Arthritis Pain

September is National Pain Awareness Month, and if you suffer from arthritis, you are likely well-acquainted with the various side effects of joint pain. It can affect every aspect of life — limiting the ability to work, exercise, perform basic everyday tasks, and even enjoy life. But many people suffer silently, which is why a month bringing attention to the prevalence and consequences of pain is so important.

If you’ve been newly diagnosed with arthritis, National Pain Awareness Month is a good time to learn more about arthritis pain and how to manage it. It can have multiple sources, including inflammation, tissue damage and muscle strain, which occurs when the muscles work overtime to protect the joints. The good news is that there are many ways to get relief, and experts agree the most effective management plans combine a variety of approaches. Your doctor may recommend treatments like viscosupplement injections or prescription medications, but there are also patient-driven strategies that can complement these interventions. Here are a few:

Keep a pain log: Chronicling your experience with pain can help you and your physician detect patterns and make better decisions about how to control it. The log might include the times of day when your pain is the strongest, a severity rating (0 = no pain and 10 = excruciating), the location of the pain as well as type (throbbing, burning, piercing), triggers, pain medications taken and whether they helped, etc. There are numerous smartphone apps, such as PainScale and Manage My Pain that make pain tracking simple.  

Maintain a healthy body weight. This is especially important if you suffer from the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, when the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in your joints breaks down over time. The hips and knees bear the majority of your weight and excess pounds increase the wear and tear on these joints, resulting in pain. Several studies have found that for overweight patients, decreasing body weight by 10 percent or more substantially reduces pain.

Exercise regularly. Like losing excess pounds, building up the muscles that support your joints reduces the stress on them. Getting your body moving also alleviates the depression and anxiety that often accompany arthritis and can exacerbate pain. And finally, moderately intense aerobic exercise releases endorphins —hormones that are sometimes referred to as the “body’s natural pain killer.” Your routine should include stretching to increase joint mobility and reduce stiffness; strengthening to protect and support your joints; and low-impact aerobic exercises to improve heart, lung, and muscle function as well as mood. Consult with a physical therapist to create a program that’s tailored to your needs and limitations and check out our blog for more ideas on managing pain while continuing to engage in the exercises and activities you love.

Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy if your pain becomes chronic: CBT is a psychological treatment that can help change your relationship to pain. It’s the most commonly used psychosocial intervention for chronic pain. One of its primary goals is to replace self-defeating thoughts — for example, that you will never overcome your pain —with more rational ones that encourage behaviors that reduce pain’s impact on your life. Although a short-term treatment —sessions are typically weekly or every other week for several months — CBT teaches coping skills that can be used for the long term.

One final note on National Pain Awareness Month. Pain can be an isolating experience. Raising awareness begins with your friends and family. Sharing the facts about your condition, your limitations and the ways they can be accommodated invites loved ones to become part of your circle of support.

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