Over 100 million adults are affected by chronic pain in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine. More and more research now recognizes chronic pain as a lifestyle-related disease, meaning that factors like low physical activity, poor diet, smoking and stress can all affect chronic pain levels.
While various medications are often a front-line treatment for chronic pain, lifestyle adjustments substantially alleviate symptoms of pain as well with longer-lasting results and fewer negative side effects.
7 lifestyle changes you can practice that research shows can reduce chronic pain
1. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
Inflammation is an immune system response that helps our body fight off bacteria, viruses, or infections. When prolonged, inflammation can start to damage healthy cells, resulting in chronic conditions that may cause pain. However, certain foods reduce inflammation and promote immunity. These include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- High-fiber whole grains (quinoa, whole wheat pasta/bread, buckwheat, brown rice)
- Healthy fats like those in avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds
- Unsweetened tea and coffee
- Dark chocolate
- Herbs and spices like turmeric and ginger
Conversely, certain foods cause increased levels of inflammation. It’s a good idea to limit the following inflammatory foods:
- Sweetened beverages
- White bread, pasta, and rice
- Fried foods
- Processed meats (Deli meat, bacon, hot dogs)
- Saturated fats like full-fat dairy and fatty cuts of meat
- Excess alcohol
2. Increase physical activity
Physical inactivity can lead to stiff, painful muscles as well as decreased mobility and strength. Conversely, increasing your activity even by just 20 minutes a day can decrease inflammation, increase mobility, and reduce pain even without medications.
3. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of awareness of your surroundings, state of being, and the present moment. Several studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can help reduce the intensity of chronic pain by influencing brain activity.
- There are many digital resources about mindfulness and how to get started. The website Mindful offers several educational videos and articles on the subject: https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
4. Practice Yoga or tai chi
Similar to mindfulness, yoga and tai chi focus on breathing techniques and meditation. These exercise practices also incorporate gentle physical movements that stretch and strengthen muscles and have been shown to improve posture and lower back pain.
5. Cut back or quit smoking
According to the Cleveland Clinic, smoking may supply short-term pain relief, but over time, it can lead to increased pain levels by restricting oxygen and blood flow to your bones and tissues. In fact, one study found that smokers are almost 3x more likely to get lower back pain.
6. Try natural pain relief agents
There are many safe and effective natural agents or supplements that offer pain relief benefits. Not only can these agents decrease inflammation in the body, but they can also act as an alternative to medications for long-term pain relief. A study from Surgical Neurology International recognizes the following agents to have pain-relieving properties:
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are found in fish oil supplements, are known to reduce inflammation.
- White willow bark is one of the oldest herbal remedies for pain/inflammation. At 240 mg/day, it can act through a similar mechanism as aspirin to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain.
- Turmeric powder can reduce pain with its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
- Green tea is used to treat arthritic disease and has recently been found to have anti-inflammatory properties as well.
7. Try cold and heat therapies
Cold and heat have long been used to successfully alleviate symptoms of chronic pain. For example, you can make your own heat or cold packs at home or try a non-invasive treatment from your physical therapist or chiropractor.
In addition to following the advice of a trusted health care professional, practicing these lifestyle changes can be a small but a powerful way to manage and even reduce chronic pain. Likewise, you can reduce inflammation, strengthen joints and muscles, and heal your body and mind to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Prescribe FIT is a virtual lifestyle health solution that partners with your orthopedic physician to help you improve your musculoskeletal health and joint pain. By focusing on root cause medicine and whole person lifestyle health, we have helped 82% of our patients with severe pain find significant reductions in just 30 days.