11 Tips for Living With Chronic Pain

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on February 14, 2023
5 min read

Chronic back pain affects more than your body. It can stop you from doing things you enjoy and lead to feelings of anxiety or depression. But your lifestyle has a big impact on how you feel, both physically and mentally. Here are some changes you can make right now that can make a difference in both your level of pain and how you manage it. 

Deep breathing and meditation are techniques that help your body relax, which may ease pain. Tension and tightness seep from muscles as they receive a quiet message to relax.

Although there are many ways to meditate, the soothing power of repetition is at the heart of some forms of meditation. Focusing on the breath, ignoring passing thoughts, and repeating a word or phrase, or mantra, causes the body to relax. While you can learn meditation on your own, it may help to take a class.

Deep breathing is also a relaxation technique. Find a quiet location, a comfortable body position, and block out distracting thoughts. Then, imagine a spot just below your navel. Breathe into that spot, filling your abdomen with air. Let the air fill you from the abdomen up, then let it out, like deflating a balloon.

Negative feelings like depression, anxiety, stress, and anger can increase the body's sensitivity to pain. By learning to take control of stress, you may find some relief from chronic pain.

Several techniques can help reduce stress and promote relaxation. Listening to soothing, calming music can lift your mood -- and make living with chronic pain more bearable. There are even specially designed relaxation tapes or CDs for this. Mental imagery relaxation (also called guided imagery) is a form of mental escape that can help you feel peaceful. It involves creating calming, peaceful images in your mind. Progressive muscle relaxation is another technique that promotes relaxation.

If you think that you can’t be active because of your back pain, that’s understandable, but you might be surprised. Activity can help, as long as it’s not too intense, too long, or too much. Exercises that strengthen your back and belly muscles also help to prevent re-injury and head off further pain. 

Exercise can also help keep your weight down, reduce heart disease risk, and control blood sugar levels -- especially important if you have diabetes. And as an added bonus, it also raises your levels of endorphins. These are brain chemicals that help improve your mood while also blocking pain signals. 

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself a little bit physically. But if you have certain health conditions, like diabetic neuropathy, you’ll need to be careful about the types of activities you do. Ask your doctor for an exercise routine that’s right for you.

Pain makes sleep difficult, and alcohol can make sleep problems worse. If you're living with chronic pain, drinking less or no alcohol can improve your quality of life.

When you're with people who have chronic pain and understand what you're going through, you feel less alone. You also benefit from their wisdom in managing pain.

Also, consider meeting with a mental health professional. Anyone can develop depression if they are living with chronic pain. Getting counseling can help you learn to cope better and help you avoid negative thoughts that make pain worse -- so you have a healthier attitude. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Smoking can worsen painful circulation problems and increase risk of heart disease and cancer.

To effectively treat your pain, your doctor needs to know how you've been feeling between visits. Keeping a log or journal of your daily "pain score" will help you track your pain. At the end of each day, note your pain level on the 1 to 10 pain scale. Also, note what activities you did that day. Take this log book to every doctor visit to give your doctor a good understanding of how you're living with chronic pain and your physical functioning level.

Through biofeedback, it's possible to consciously control various body functions. It may sound like science fiction, but there’s good evidence that biofeedback works -- and it's not hard to master.

Here's how it works: You wear sensors that let you "hear" or "see" certain bodily functions like pulse, digestion, body temperature, and muscle tension. The squiggly lines and beeps on the attached monitors reflect what's going on inside your body. Then you learn to control those squiggles and beeps. After a few sessions, your mind has trained your biological system to learn the skills.

Massage can help reduce stress and relieve tension. It’s being used by people living with all sorts of chronic pain, including back and neck pain.

A well-balanced diet is important in many ways: It aids your digestive process, reduces heart disease risk, keeps weight under control, and improves blood sugar levels. Choose from these: fresh fruits and vegetables; cooked dried beans and peas; whole-grain breads and cereals; low-fat cheese, milk, and yogurt; and lean meats.

When you focus on pain, it makes it worse rather than better. Instead, find an activity you enjoy that keeps you busy and thinking about things besides your pain. You might not be able to avoid pain, but you can keep it from taking control of your life.