Chronic Pain: Use It or Lose It

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We've all heard this phrase when it comes to maintaining the health of your brain. Did you know that it applies for people in pain as well? 

National CRPS Awareness Month

According to the The American RSDHope Organization, November has been, for the past 17 years, the National CRPS Awareness Month. CRPS stands for Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome and is a chronic pain condition that can affect a limb after trauma or injury. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the experienced pain is often extremely intense, constant, considered disproportional to the original injury, and prolonged much past the healing stages for that injury. Skin changes, swelling, and sensitivities to certain textures, materials, and temperatures is also common. Anyone can be affected by CRPS, and treatment involves rehabilitation therapy, psychotherapy, and medication. Healing from CRPS varies from person to person, but children and teenagers tend to have better recovery. 

Keep Moving 

Because the limb often hurts just to even lightly touch, people with CRPS often protect it with certain postures and end up not using that limb. However, disuse increases the chances of swelling and leads to muscle atrophy and limb weakness. By keeping the limb moving, you can work on desensitizing it and keep the fluids moving. In therapy, the focus is in the maintenance of movement in the affected limb to improve circulation, reduce swelling and sensitivity, and maintain function.  

This principle of "use it or lose it" also applies to other people who live with chronic pain, which is characterized as any kind of pain that persists for longer than 6 months.  Common diagnoses that often involve chronic pain, whether nerve or muscular, include depression, arthritis, cancer, and fibromyalgia. If you are hurting all over, you will tend to not move. However, our muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons require movement to stay in working shape. When you stop moving and spend more time being sedentary each day, your body will start to break down, which then causes you even more pain. 

how does moving help?

Moving and exercising helps with circulation of blood flow as well as the lymphatic system and decreases swelling. It also helps to improve and/or maintain the range of motion, strength, and function of the involved limbs. As Healthy Women puts it, when you exercise, you are also "producing your own medication" or painkillers, called opiates. These opiates help to lower your perception of pain. 

What can you do at home?

If you have been diagnosed with CRPS, you can gently range the affected limb. For example, if your left arm is affected, you can use your right hand to gently raise and lower your left arm at the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and finger joints. 

For those diagnosed with chronic pain, depending on the severity of your pain, you will want to do anything from passively ranging as described above, to gentle stretching, to aerobic exercise. If you had an acute injury at some point that eventually led to chronic pain, you will want to speak to a healthcare provider (such as myself and your primary care physician) to determine what specific exercises are safe for you to participate in. The key is to take baby steps, start slow, and build up to doing regular aerobic exercise. 

Set walking goals 

In general, walking most often is a safe activity for anyone with chronic pain to participate in. Even a short walk can kickstart your body into creating those opiates, or natural painkillers, to help you feel less pain. When creating your weekly walking goals, consider the location of your walk, how long you have gone on walks for before, how it will fit into your daily schedule. 

For example, if you have never gone on a walk before and are mostly sedentary at home, you will want to start with a smaller goal like, "I will walk around my house at least 3 times a day for the following week." If you have walked before but feel like you don't have time to do it, your goal may look like, "I will park a block away from work each day for the following week." 

Happy Goal Setting! 

 

Resources:

The American Chronic Pain Association

The American RSDHope Organization

Healthy Women: Chronic Pain: Move It or Lose It

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: CRPS Fact Sheet