Its striking how much pain people can put with it; older people especially are often resigned to a certain degree of suffering and get on with their lives in spite of it. Such a stoical attitude to pain is admirable and perhaps essential given that pain is, in one way or another, a fact of life.
But on the other hand it can lead to unnecessary suffering if we are quietly putting up with a level of pain which can be alleviated. I used to notice this with my late father; in his old age he would occasionally complain about aches and pains, but at the same time he wasn’t too interested in doing anything about them. It seemed he felt it was easier to just put up with it.
However, if you don’t want to just grin and bear it, there is always something you can do to help with pain. This is even, or especially, the case if you have a chronic pain condition or widespread osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis or something similar. Whilst it may not be realistic to think in terms of eradicating the pain completely (although miracles have been known to happen!), pain can be managed.
Quite often it seems we have an ‘all or nothing’ approach to these things, which doesn’t go well with something like chronic pain, as it may lead us to conclude that if the pain cannot be cured or eradicated, there is nothing to be done about it. There is always something that can be done. Usually quite a lot of things.
To start with, there are numerous ways of alleviating pain, reducing its intensity, making it more manageable and bearable. Painkilling medications are what most of us reach for first of all, but they are often not the most effective, or the most suitable from the point of view of side-effects. Acupuncture and related treatments such as cupping and gua sha can make a big difference for many painful conditions. I remember treating a chap who had been enduring some serious hip pain for some time, which had been diagnosed as being due to osteoarthritis. Like my father he was someone who was resigned to just putting up with the pain, perhaps until he eventually had a hip replacement operation, but his sister was a regular patient of mine and she persuaded him to come in for treatment. Surprisingly for him, and I must admit for me too given the diagnosis, the pain more or less disappeared after one treatment. It stayed disappeared too; normally one would expect a chronic arthritic pain would need several treatments to reduce the pain considerably and keep it at bay.
Maybe the diagnosis of osteoarthritis was incorrect, or perhaps he did have that but it was not the source of the pain [scans don’t show causality; a scan might show you have an arthritic joint, but it is really an assumption that the arthritic joint is causing any pain you might be feeling. After all plenty of people are shown to have arthritis who are not in pain]. More than likely in this case the pain was due to muscle tension, which can be readily relieved by acupuncture and cupping. Anyhow, his case illustrates that its not always necessary to put up with pain.
As well as getting some treatment, whether medication, acupuncture, or something else, there are numerous things you can do yourself to help both decrease pain, and to manage what pain there is better. These will augment the treatment you are getting and help you keep the initiative with your health, rather than becoming a helpless victim of pain. Off the top of my head, here are a few suggestions:
- Attend to your diet. If your pain includes inflammation, as it often will, you would be well advised to cut down on processed and fast food, things like crisps and sweets and sugary drinks, all of which seem to increase inflammation. (Basically, your body interprets such foods as mild poisons and ramps up its defence system, which includes an inflammatory response which will make any inflammation already present increase.) Eating something like the Mediterranean diet is a good way of making sure that what goes down your throat isn’t exacerbating the pain in your knee, hip, back or wherever it is.
- If you have joint or muscle pain, perhaps you might benefit from gently massaging a suitable liniment into the painful area. You could try Tiger Balm, a cheap traditional Chinese medical balm (not made from tigers – its just a brand name!). Use white Tiger Balm if the painful area is warm and inflamed, red Tiger Balm otherwise.
- Get suitable exercise. What counts as suitable will obviously vary from person to person, and pain to pain. You might need specialist advice, but you can also learn from your experience if you are sensible and use your intuition. Learn to listen to what your body is telling you.
- Look into the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the current fad with people looking for pain relief as well as and with people looking to cope with the stresses of modern life, but it is something with a long history – people have been practising it for at least 2,500 years! It might just revolutionise your experience of pain (and possibly the rest of your life as well!)
- Something as simple as a bit of warmth from a hot water bottle can sometimes ease your pain. Protecting painful areas from cold, wind and rain when you go out sounds like common sense, but common sense isn’t always so common. Draughts from air conditioning also should be avoided.
- Pay attention to your posture; pain may be your body’s way of complaining about the way you are sitting, standing or constantly bending over your phone.
- Enjoy yourself! That may not be an option if the pain is severe, but otherwise its surprising how much you can forget about your pain if you are having a good time; and in fact it may not be just that you are not noticing it, but that the pain is actually lessened.
Which brings us back to the stoic endurance of the older generation. We are likely to need that ability to put up with pain at some point in our lives, it doesn’t need to be our only resource. Learning to deal with pain is part of the art of living well.