Effective treatment of chronic pain is not as simple as taking a pill or a few days off of work. It often requires a combination of medication and non-medication treatments, adjusted to fit each patient’s unique needs. Today, we’ll explore the role that diet, exercise, and mental health can play in alleviating chronic pain.

Diet and Chronic Pain

Most people know that eating a balanced diet is integral to overall wellness. This is particularly true for those dealing with long term health issues.

Many patients find significant improvement in their symptoms by following diets that are high in produce and whole grains, while minimizing or eliminating processed foods, sugars, and simple carbs. This often includes eliminating alcohol, which can be a prime suspect in causing damaging inflammation. Commonly recommended plans include the (appropriately named) Anti-Inflammation Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, low carb diets.

Sometimes diet is the direct cause of chronic pain, as with food intolerances and allergies, or conditions like celiac’s disease. Following an elimination diet – cutting out any food that might be causing problems, then adding them back in one by one – can help you pinpoint “trigger” foods that activate or aggravate your symptoms.

Allergies and intolerances aside, a healthy diet goes a long way in helping the body self-regulate and heal. In contrast, there is evidence to suggest that a poor diet can put stress on the body, leading to overall inflammation and pain. According to Dr. Fred Tabung of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition: “Your diet can help support your immune system by having it turn on and turn off at the appropriate times. Yet a poor diet can alter your immune system, so it acts abnormally, and can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation.”

If you’ve never examined your diet before, it can be helpful to consult with your doctor and/or a licensed dietician. Even before your appointment, start a food diary to record what you eat and when. The more data you have, the easier it will be to identify problem foods. Even with the restrictions of food allergies or intolerances, most people find it possible to make improvements.

Exercise and Chronic Pain

Like diet, regular exercise is critical to overall health. However, chronic pain creates serious challenges for patients trying to maintain an effective exercise routine. This can quick have a snowball effect: a lack of exercise leads to loss of muscle tone, which then makes it even more difficult to start exercising again. In addition, damage to the body from illness or injury can cut patients off from their favorite physical activities permanently.

However, the benefits of regular exercise for chronic pain sufferers can be significant. According to the UK National Health Service, effective exercise can allow chronic pain sufferers to:

  • Recondition and build muscle overall (which can protect sensitive joints)
  • Improve core strength and posture
  • Increase flexibility and stamina to avoid damaging injuries and achieve longer period of activity
  • Regain confidence in their body and improve overall outlook on life

When developing your exercise regimen, talk to your healthcare team about your specific challenges and potential restrictions. Many people begin with brief periods of low impact activity, such as yoga or swimming. Shorter sessions can make it easier for the body to adapt to moving again, allowing patients to keep a consistent schedule, which in turn can eventually lead to significant improvements in stamina and overall pain levels.

Mental Health and Chronic Pain

Scientific research is showing that the link between mind and body is much stronger than previously thought, particularly when dealing with chronic illnesses. In addition, there is a high correlation between chronic pain and mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. This makes sense; it’s hard to stay cheerful when faced with pain that has no permanent cure.

A balanced diet and regular exercise help provide your body with the resources it needs to handle chronic pain. The mind also needs resources, which can be provided by treatments aimed at mental wellness.

Psychological counseling, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can be highly beneficial, helping you maintain perspective and learn effective coping strategies for living with chronic pain. Meditation and relaxation techniques can also help you refocus your thoughts and lessen the negative effects of depression and anxiety.

Solid personal support networks can also play an important role in mental health. In addition to maintaining contact with friends and family, you may want to look for meetings of chronic pain or illness-specific support groups in your area. Sharing experiences with others who face the same challenges can help you feel less alone. More experienced members may also have useful tips for living with your conditions.

The ideal treatment plan for chronic illness can sometimes seem just as mysterious as its causes. However, taking a holistic look at diet, exercise, and mental health can provide a solid jumping-off point for your journey to wellness.

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