What is the relationship with addiction and chronic pain?
Oftentimes, addiction results from chronic pain for many of those who are receiving treatment. Chronic pain can evoke various emotional reactions, such as anxiety or depression, depending on what we believe about our pain signals. In this way, chronic pain is subjective and defined by the person who is experiencing it, where some may see their pain as debilitating and others view it as a nuisance to overcome. The mind plays an important role in chronic pain, where we can learn how to manage/control those pain sensations through coping strategies. Those who are struggling with chronic pain can ultimately feel more in control of their body and less dependent on external relief such as opiates. This is important in addiction treatment services as it can aid and empower clients to utilize coping skills for pain as their source of addiction and prevent future relapse.
How am I able to address chronic pain as a source of my addiction?
First and foremost, it is essential for those coping with chronic pain to receive a thorough medical evaluation to determine the pain source. This will help discern pain as a warning signal for impending damage and pain that is chronic and/or part of an unchangeable health condition. In terms of addiction treatment, the overall goal for many is to learn how to cope with their challenges in a different, more healthy way. It is important to note that while addiction treatment is NOT equivalent to pain management, chronic pain must be addressed in addiction treatment when it is the primary source of one’s urge to use. This can be interpreted as learning how to prevent chronic pain from consuming the entire focus of one’s life. By doing so, the negative side-effects of chronic pain such as stress, depression and triggers can improve and lead to relapse prevention/reduced dependence on pain medicine alone. The following are coping skills/tips that have been found to be helpful in reducing dependence on pain medicine alone by adding to your recovery toolbox:
- Accept your pain. Educate yourself about your condition, understand that there may not be a “cure”, and accept that you will need to cope with this pain as part of your life. When we take the energy used fighting against something and redirect it to focus on coping with the issue, it reduces the related stress and negativity tremendously.
- Learn to relax. There are various relaxation techniques such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation that aid in bringing one’s focus away from pain. These techniques help improve concentration and release tension from muscle for pain relief (it is also great for stress relief as well). Positive imagery is also helpful, where mental pictures of pleasant places/events can help reduce pain. Positive imagery is also helpful, where mental pictures of pleasant places/events can help reduce pain. While it takes practice, these skills are helpful for both the mind and body.
- Recognize emotions and reduce your stress. Our body and brain are connected, where emotions directly affect our physical well-being as negative emotions can increase the body’s sensitivity to pain. When we acknowledge and learn to cope with those emotions, our stress is better controlled and relief from chronic pain may be found.
- Use distraction techniques. These techniques also help bring your focus away from pain/negative thoughts and onto more positive mental thoughts/images. These techniques can be as simple as watching your favorite television show, reading a good book, listening to music, and so on – an activity that you enjoy doing.
- Exercise if possible. We often associate pain with avoiding activity, but unused muscles feel more pain. Exercise helps to release endorphins, a brain chemical that improve mood and block pain signals. Identifying an appropriate and safe exercise regimen with your doctor can help you build strength, decrease pain, and promote overall well-being.
- Take care of yourself. Make sure you are taking care of your basic needs – eating, sleeping, and so on. When we are not meeting these needs, our body feels it, and we are often more exhausted and depleted, and thus in more pain. A well-balanced diet can aid your body in many ways that will contribute to managing your pain, such as keeping your weight under control and managing blood sugar. Try to avoid substances such as cigarettes or alcohol, which can worsen things such as circulation and sleep problems which will ultimately worsen your pain level as well.
- Have a good support system. Joining a support group and meeting others who are living with chronic pain can be helpful in making us feel less alone with what we’re going through. We can also benefit from others’ experiences and what has been beneficial for them in coping with similar issues. Getting actively involved in your own recovery can be helpful as well. Follow your doctor’s advice and ask what you can do to move from a passive role into an active participant in your own health care, where you will feel more supported in your treatment.
- Remember to see the total picture. As we learn to utilize the above skills, we can see that pain does not need to be the center of our lives. We must look beyond the pain to see the aspects most important to us, setting those as our priorities and goals. With this, we can move forward to a more active life and feel accomplished with future successes.
The American Chronic Pain Association also has a list of coping skills used in groups that are deemed helpful in managing pain such as not dwelling on the physical symptoms of pain, focusing on abilities (not disabilities), recognizing and talking freely about related emotions and pain’s control over our lives without judgement, and setting realistic goals to achieve desires one step at a time. A guide for helpful resources and information related to chronic pain can be found here.
The isolation and fear that often accompanies chronic pain’s growth over time can make the journey to recovery feel impossible. It is important to remember that this journey takes time – without or without sources such as chronic pain. In many ways, these coping skills are also helpful to those who are receiving addiction treatment in general, no matter the source. One must remember that in that journey, we are also changing from patient to person. By regaining our independence and empowering ourselves, it is possible to return to a fuller, more rewarding life. You may not be able to avoid pain, but you can take control of your life.