Pain Management

Chronic Pain: When to Self-Treat and When to Seek Medical Attention

The only thing worse than being in constant pain is wondering if you are doing the right thing by taking care of it yourself. After all, what happens if there’s something going on with your body that you don’t realize? Or, what if you could do something to make things better, but don’t and find yourself in a worse position than the one you are in now?

All of the “what if’s” floating around in your mind certainly don’t help. The stress and worry will keep your body in a heightened state of arousal, making it harder to heal itself. It’s like a spiral staircase in which you continuously go downhill. That’s why it is important to know when to self-treat and when medical attention is more appropriate, or even mandatory. The best way to decide which option is right for your current condition is to ask yourself the following questions:

How long have you dealt with the pain?

Is this a new feeling that has just come on, or something that you’ve been suffering with for months or even years? While it may be normal to have a few aches and pains as a result of previous injury or damage to your body, if you’re not healing then there could be a potential problem. Think about it in terms of breaking your leg. You would expect it to hurt right when the injury occurs, as well as during the course of the healing process. However, after that you should have minimal or no pain.

Generally speaking, many health experts suggest that pain that lasts longer than three months is termed as chronic and any amount of time that is less than that is deemed acute. Acute pain typically comes on fast and strong and leaves in just the same manner. So, if you have chronic pain that doesn’t seem to go away no matter what you do, then medical attention should be sought. A medical professional may be able to find the cause of the problem and provide you some much needed (and desired) relief.

To the same point, if you have a minor cut or abrasion that hurts beyond the first couple days or week, then it may also be time to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Essentially, you have to ask yourself if the length of time that you’re experiencing pain is normal given your injury or condition. If it isn’t, make an appointment.

How intense is the pain?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your level of pain? Is it at the lower end of the scale (maybe a 1 or 2), or are you maxing out at 8, 9, or 10? Some pain in life is normal. If you stub your toe or endure one of those extremely small yet incredibly painful paper cuts, it is going to hurt. But, that is a good thing. You see, the reason that you experience pain is to let you know that something is wrong. And, if it is something that you can control (such as burning yourself on a hot stove, for instance), pain is how you learn to not do something harmful to yourself. The question is, though, how high is your pain dial at this moment in time?

The more intense the pain, the more it is recommended that you seek medical care.This is true for both acute and chronic pain. If you’re having a hard time functioning due to the level of discomfort that you’re in physically, then it’s time to find out what is causing the issue and, more importantly, how to take care of it. Now, this may be a little difficult to calculate as everyone has a different tolerance to pain. Some people can endure quite a bit and still function normally and others are sidelined by something that is rather minor. For example, if you have a high pain tolerance, you may decide to seek medical attention when your pain is more of a 7 or 8. And, conversely, if you have a low tolerance, you may want to consider this as well.

chronic pain

Are you taking a lot of medication to deal with the pain?

The nice thing about pain medications is that they either completely take away the pain or dull it to the point where it at least becomes manageable. However, the bad thing about pain meds is that they can also become extremely addictive and your body (and mind) can learn to rely on them more often than what is healthy. Whether you’re using medication that has been prescribed by your doctor or some over the counter pain reliever that you got at the local chemist or pharmacy, take too much and you’re going to do more harm than good. For instance, the chemicals and substances that they contain can be very hard on your stomach and kidneys, not to mention the problems you’re going to create if you become addicted to them and then try to stop taking them.

The idea behind pain medication is to provide you temporary relief. One example of this would be when you take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to deal with a headache. Typically, your head should quit hurting after just one dose. Another example of using pain meds as a temporary solution is when you break a bone or are recovering from major surgery. Of course it would be understandable that you may want to take something until you heal so that you don’t have to spend your days in complete agony. But, you don’t want to get yourself in a situation where you can’t function in life without some sort of medication. Again, the standard here is what the “normal” person would take in your situation. So, if you’re exceeding what a reasonable person in your condition would take, then it’s probably time to make a doctor’s appointment and consider your alternatives.

Not sure if your medication usage is over the top? If you take more than the prescribed or recommended amounts (such as in taking 1,000 mg versus 600 mg) and/or you are popping pills sooner than you should (like when you take the meds every three hours as opposed to every six hours as recommended), then you’re abusing the medication and need to come up with some other way to relieve the pain. It is extremely important that they be used as intended (whether they’re prescribed or you purchase them at your local store). And, to reiterate, they shouldn’t be considered a long term solution when you have other options available.

Are you extremely worried about the pain?

If you’re the type of person that will worry and fret about the pain, concerned as to what it is and why you feel it, then the stress you will place yourself under will likely increase over time. You’ll constantly be wondering what is wrong with you and why you don’t feel well.This tension is very harmful to your body when you endure it for weeks or months on end with no relief in sight. Your body doesn’t relax enough to heal itself, which often makes the matter worse and the pain symptoms more intense. Your immune system becomes compromised and you lengthen the amount of time it would normally take you to get over whatever is plaguing you.

Certainly you don’t want to run to the doctor with every ache and pain you feel. Not only would that become costly, but it is also a waste of time for you and them. However, you also don’t want to become a recluse in your own home who is afraid to go out and do anything because you fear your current condition. A doctor’s visit may help ease your mind as you will have the advice of a trained expert versus just trying to figure out your medical condition and treatment plan on your own. Sometimes the peace of mind is enough to get your body to calm down and start to feel better in the process. If you ask yourself all of these questions and come to the conclusion that you’re not going to seek medical care, you can self-treat until such point in time when either your pain is relieved or you believe that intervention is necessary. (Feel free to review these questions at any point in time and make your decision based on your status right at that moment.)

What are some good treatment options when it comes to pain?

Luckily, you have many options when it comes to dealing with pain. While medication is often the first thing that comes to mind for most people, the possibilities extend way beyond pharmaceutical care. They include:

Acupuncture. This particular remedy has been around for ages and many people have used it to relieve their pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, traditional Chinese acupuncture involves inserting needles into various pathways in your body in an attempt to readjust the balance of your energy. However, Western health professionals believe that this remedy works because it stimulates your points of pain (such as your muscles and nerves) and gets your body to release its own natural pain relievers.

Biofeedback.The University of Maryland Medical Center defines biofeedback as “a technique that trains people to improve their health by controlling certain bodily processes that normally happen involuntarily, such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature.” Initially, you start these training sessions while being hooked up to machines that gauge your body’s response as you figure out how to manipulate them. But, as you become more adept at feeling your internal processes, you become more efficient at controlling your body without the use of any type of equipment.

Relaxation Training. One of the first things you need to do when engaging in the healing of your body is to learn how to relax it. The constant stress and pressure that you feel will hinder your ability to deal with, and hopefully extinguish, the pain. You can do this via meditation, breathing exercises or any other number of relaxing activities. The key is to get your body to go from a constant mode of contraction and engagement to a posture that reflects one of peace and comfort.

Hypnosis. Researchers have consistently found that your subconscious mind has a huge impact on the physical health of your body. So, if you can find a way to change how you view your pain, you may be able to get your mind help get you some relief. People have used hypnosis for ages to help them lose weight, quit smoking and reach heightened levels in their career. However, in this instance, you can also use it to deal with whatever discomfort or agony that you’re feeling in your body.

Chiropractic Care. You don’t have to limit yourself to just going to a medical doctor for pain relief; chiropractic doctors can help too. They can manipulate your spine to get it back into proper form, thereby relieving any pressure it is putting on your nerves. Not only could this resolve any pain that you have in your back, but it also helps your entire body. Also, you’ll likely notice other beneficial changes to other systems as well (such as your reproductive, digestive, and circulatory systems).

Distraction Techniques. If you can’t resolve the pain you feel, then you need to learn how to deal with it. One of the best ways to do this is to distract yourself. The less time you spend focused on how bad you feel, the less intense and bothersome the pain becomes. It’s similar to when you stay home from work when you’re sick. If you lie on the couch all day, you’ll continue to think about how rotten your cold or flu is and you’ll feel worse. However, if you distract yourself with a good movie or by chatting with a close friend, you soon notice that the symptoms aren’t so bad and you start on the road to recovery.

Electrical Nerve Stimulation. In cases of chronic pain that likely won’t ever go away, medical intervention such as this can help. A skilled surgeon can place an electrical nerve stimulator in just the precise spot in your body to essentially short circuit your pain receptors and give you some much needed relief.

There are several more options, so be diligent when finding a pain tolerance method of treatment that is right for you. If you live in a bigger city, you may find that your alternatives are more plentiful than if you reside in a small town with limited options, but they’re still there if you search for them.

Keep in mind, too, that not everything works for every person. For instance, I might find that acupuncture reduces my pain tremendously, but it may not help you at all. And, you could see amazing improvements with distraction techniques, yet they may not do anything for my pain levels. So, don’t give up just because you try something that doesn’t seem to help you personally. Keep seeking other options until you find what works for you.

One word of caution

be careful about what you read when you do your own research. The internet is one of the top places to search out the latest in greatest in medical care and pain treatment. However, not all sites are created equal.

Try to pick websites that are reputable and seem more focused on your health and wellness than on selling you something. Some great sites that are often recognized as valid and contain expert advice within the industry (other than this one, of course) include WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health. There are several available, but these are just a few.

In addition, make sure you use your common sense. If something sounds completely outrageous or simply too good to be true, you’re better off leaving it alone. Anyone can put anything they want on the internet so don’t fall prey to something that could potentially harm you instead of making yourself feel better.

Finally, keep in mind that the information presented in this article is meant to be a guideline. It isn’t an absolute that says that you can’t seek medical treatment unless specific conditions are met.

Remember this motto: When in doubt, check it out

You are the best judge of when something isn’t right within your body. You know how you should feel and you can sense when something is wrong. You need to learn to trust yourself and follow your instincts if things feel out of place. After all, no one else lives in your body and knows what your “normal” feels like.

Living with chronic pain can lower your levels of happiness and reduce your quality of life. Find a way to deal with the everyday agony and it will benefit you on more than just a physical level. You’ll also notice that you feel better mentally and emotionally as well. And, there’s nothing better than whole body wellness.

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