What is the Chronic Pain Cycle and How Do I Break It?

The chronic pain cycle is essentially what happens to us when we are in pain and let it consume us. First off, this is normal! I totally remembering being there myself. Usually we try to address only part of the cycle, without managing the whole thing (i.e., we like those prescribed medications from our doctors but still get frustrated when they don’t fix everything). I thought today we could talk about a few different versions of the cycle, and address a few ways to address them so that pain is less consuming and we can get back to a life that is closer to what we want.

First off, some of the examples of the pain cycle are pretty basic. Pain leads to sleep problems leads to mood problems leads to decreased activity leads to low energy leads to decreased pain. Or pain leads to muscle tension leads to reduced circulation leads to muscle inflammation to reduced movement leads to pain. And any case, you can start pretty much anywhere in the cycle, but you always end up with more pain. A more comprehensive version of this cycle is shown in the diagram below.

Here’s the problem: our brains tell us that we shouldn’t move, we shouldn’t be active, that things will never be good for us, that we will never have normal lives, etc., etc. because they are trying to keep us safe. Unfortunately, all the research shows that our brains are incorrect and that these thoughts really don’t do us any service. They keep us trapped in the cycle. I remember when I first decided to start making changes for myself. I took myself to physiotherapy (physical therapy for you Americans), the chiropractor, the naturopath, massage therapy, and psychotherapy, because I wanted some relief. What I was encouraged to do was break the pain cycle. How?

  1. Psychoeducation/Health education about chronic pain. I know most of you won’t read scholarly journal articles (as I do) about all of this and that’s fine, but there is a wealth of information on the internet (think clinic websites: Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, etc.). Also, if you talk to health care provides (your specialist, or any of the above that I’ve mentioned) they will be happy to provide you with the knowledge you need to start making different choices. You just have to be open and willing to listen.
  2. Increase fitness and exercise. This might be as simple as stretches and easy exercises given to you by the physiotherapist, chiropractor or massage therapist. It might also include actual cardio and/or strength training. This should of course be paced, and you should come up with a plan with your healthcare specialists. I went to the gym and got a personal trainer who had worked with people with autoimmune diseases before.
  3. Take your medication. Inflammation in particular is often best addressed with some sort of medication. Of course, there are alternative ways to address it as well, such as through diet or supplements. I like the approach of doing both. I take my medication as prescribed and then balance that with diet.
  4. Address side effects of medication, such as weight gain or others. This might be with your doctor – adjusting doses or which medication you take – or it could be done holistically through other therapies (as mentioned above), exercise, and diet.
  5. Address the cognitive issues that arise. This means anxiety, depression, sleep issues, stress, fear, frustration, anger, negative thinking, rumination, etc. While these are normal experiences, they can make it harder for us to make changes. These can be addressed through sleep hygiene, meditation, and psychotherapy.
Going on adventures even with pain.

Where am I in the pain cycle? Look, to be honest, some days it’s not perfect and I fall right into the cycle. However, most days I can openly and curiously acknowledge and accept my pain, breaking the cycle before it begins. I use all of these tools and healthcare providers because it helps. I know from experience that chronic pain does not have to be life consuming.

I’ve linked episodes of the podcast and my meditation channel throughout this post if you want more information. Until next week, keep making the most of it!