Firstly, I want to make it totally clear that I’m not advocating that people shouldn’t use painkillers to manage pain. But thanks to the current coronavirus lockdown, I’ve had a couple of situations where I couldn’t use my normal painkillers, and it got me thinking about coping with pain when you can’t use painkillers.
I have chronic pain from my hypermobility spectrum disorder that flares up now and then, especially when the temperature changes rapidly from hot to cold or vice versa. Usually if it gets particularly bad, I take ibuprofen (Advil, for any Americans). However, since France issued a warning about using non-steroidal inflammatory painkillers during the covid 19 pandemic, I’ve tried to avoid taking it even though the evidence is not really clear either way.
Then I also have an issue with very bad sinus headaches, which is a hangover from two lots of brain surgery done via my nose (transsphenoidal surgery). They get so bad that they also have the fun side effect of making me very nauseous, to the point that I have actually thrown up from them several times. They are aggravated by pollen/hayfever, so tend to get worse at this time of year. Normally, I would take paracetamol because ibuprofen doesn’t work for them… But we don’t have much paracetamol in the house, and it’s been hard to get hold of lately with the coronavirus panic buying. So again, I’ve been trying to avoid taking painkillers.
And so, I thought I’d write a post about some of the ways that I find helpful for coping with pain (especially joint pain, because that’s my most common issue). They probably won’t work for everyone, or every type of pain, but I hope you might find it useful anyway.
Coping With Pain When You Can’t Use Painkillers
I find that heat is so great for managing my joint pain. Pre-baby, I would often try to have a bath or at least a hot shower if they were playing up, as it helps the pain so effectively that I often wouldn’t need to take painkillers at all. Now I have a three-month old baby, I can’t just run off for a bath at the drop of a hat (sadly). So I use a hot water bottle or (preferably) a microwaveable wheat bag. Extra layers also works, but while it’s easy to put extra pairs of thick socks on if my ankles or feet are hurting, it’s not so easy to layer up and warm up a hip joint.
Conversely, ice can also help certain types of pain, especially sports injuries.
2. Breathing Exercises
When I was pregnant, I did an online hypnobirthing course with The Positive Birth Company. Well, actually I did about 60% of the course, because I was totally caught out by Little Man arriving three weeks early. One of the big aspects of hypnobirthing is using breathing exercises to manage pain. I found this really useful when giving birth; I think it’s particularly good for pain which is severe but comes and goes – like, say, having a baby…
3. Distract, Distract, Distract
I always find my joint pain is worst at night, when I’m in bed and trying to sleep. But actually, chances are that it’s not any worse then than it is any other time; it’s just that there aren’t any distractions to take my mind off my poor sad joints. Even something as simple as listening to music or reading a book can help take your mind off ongoing low-level pain. For worse pain, something interactive and requiring concentration is better as it forces your attention away from what’s hurting – like playing a game or reading aloud.
4. Movement and Massage
Probably depends on what’s causing your pain, but for my joint pain, gentle movement is really helpful to take the pressure off my joints. The other day, I was holding Little Man, who was finally sleeping after a very grumpy day (he didn’t poop for three days! Enough to make anyone grumpy I’m sure), and my hips were playing up so badly but I didn’t want to move him! When he eventually woke up, I went to do some chores in the kitchen and the pain in my joints improved significantly just from the movement.
Linked to this, massage can be really great for pain – although obviously some pain locations are more accessible than others.
Following on from the above, in the longer term, physio can help with some forms of chronic pain. I always assumed physiotherapy wasn’t really very effective, because I’d known a lot of people complain that it didn’t work for them. But when I was pregnant with Little Man, I actually tried physiotherapy for the first time, and I found it incredibly effective.
My hip pain got a lot worse very early on, from the pregnancy hormones (which make your joints looser) and extra weight. It was so bad that I was waking up constantly throughout the night in huge amounts of pain from my hip partially dislocating in my sleep. Then I would swap sides and sleep on the other side for a bit, until that one started hurting and woke me up to swap sides again. It wasn’t fun, although I guess it was great practice for waking up constantly at night with the baby once he arrived! In fact, even on bad nights when he was teeny tiny, Little Man woke me up significantly less frequently than my hips had done throughout my pregnancy.
It took a number of weeks to get an appointment with a physio, but I got there, did a full assessment and got several exercises aimed at strengthening the muscles around my hips, to hold the joint in place better. It was about six weeks of religiously doing the exercises before I noticed results, but the improvement was really noticeable and made such a huge difference to the rest of my pregnancy. So, if you haven’t already – I recommend giving physio a try.
6. Check Skeletal Alignment and Muscle Tension
If this one sounds super hippy-dippy, bear with me. A few years ago, I realised that my headaches (normal headaches, as opposed to sinus headaches where the pain is in the front of my face around the nose and eyes) are often either caused or at least aggravated by tension in my neck and shoulders. It could be from sleeping funny, being crouched over a laptop, or just being stressed and tensing up. Making a conscious effort to relax my neck and shoulders (maybe coupled with a gentle massage) can really help relieve those headaches.
Similarly, with my joints, I’ve realised that when I’m experiencing joint pain the first thing to do is check the alignment of the joint, i.e. are the bones lined up straight or am I sitting, moving or tensing in a way that sends pressure though my joints in an unnatural way. Because I have hypermobility, it’s easy for my joints to partially dislocate or just misalign without me actually noticing, and that can unsurprisingly cause pain.
7. Keep Active
When I was first diagnosed with hypermobility spectrum disorder (as it’s now known), the rheumatologist told me that the most important thing to keep pain at bay was to keep active and build up muscle to support my joints. At the moment, on lockdown, I’m doing yoga pretty much every day with my husband and it’s great exercise that’s very low-impact and thus kind on your joints. I definitely recommend it, and you can find specific yoga flows online that are tailored to particular issues, such as lower back pain or crappy hips (technical term).
Your top tips for coping with pain when you can’t use painkillers:
Do you have any tips or techniques for pain management/coping with pain without medication that work for you? Let me know in the comments below!