One of the biggest fears a person in recovery has is getting hurt or needing a medical procedure that requires potent painkillers to overcome. The journey to sobriety after an addiction to painkillers, illicit drugs, or alcohol will obviously be met with challenges along the way, but that’s one of the reasons you attend professional addiction treatment. During your time in a treatment center, you work alongside clinicians and therapists who teach you methods to cope with the potential challenges you’ll face in life. However, no matter the preparation, there are still parts that are admittedly harder than others.
Another significant challenge is a person with chronic pain who became dependent or addicted to their medication. In the beginning, it might have been an efficient means of treating their pain. For some, they can manage their pain and use potent pain medication without getting addicted. However, for others, their pain relief might suddenly turn into dependence on the drug for other reasons besides their pain. When they develop an addiction, their prescription is never enough, and they are out doctor shopping or purchasing illicit drugs off the street.
For some, it’s not as black and white, and combatting chronic pain is a full-time job. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20.4 percent of adults in the United States experienced chronic pain in 2019. Of those individuals, 7.4 percent had chronic pain that frequently limited work or life activities in the past three months, known as high-impact chronic pain. These conditions both increased with age and were highest among adults over the age of 65.
It’s common to experience aches and pains in life, and abrupt pain is an important reaction from our nervous system to alert us to a potential injury. When injuries occur, pain signals travel from the injured area up to our spinal cord into the brain. Pain typically dissipates as an injury heals, but with chronic pain, your body continues sending pain signals to the brain, even when your injury heals. Chronic pain limits mobility and reduces flexibility, endurance, and strength, making it challenging to achieve routine activities and daily tasks.
Chronic pain lasts at least 12 weeks, and it may feel sharp or dull, causing an aching or burning sensation in the affected area(s). It might be steady or intermittent, coming and going without any rhyme or reason. It can occur in any part of the body and will feel different depending on what area is affected.
The most common type of chronic pain includes:
- Lower back pain
- Postsurgical pain
- Post-trauma pain
- Arthritis pain
- Cancer pain
- Neurogenic pain (pain caused by nerve damage)
- Psychogenic pain (pain not caused by a disease, nerve damage, or injury)
What Is High-Impact Chronic Pain?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, an estimated 11 million adults are living with “high-impact chronic pain,” which is pain lasting three months or longer and accompanied by at least one major activity restriction. These include being unable to go to school, work outside of your house, or do household chores. These individuals report more severe pain, cognitive impairments, mental health problems, and an inability to take care of themselves. Those with the condition report high levels of depression, anxiety, and cognitive difficulty.
Living with moderate or severe pain can have powerful effects on your psyche. For someone who’s tried treating their condition with opioid medication and became addicted, it can feel like a nightmare scenario. Fortunately, there are ways to manage pain in recovery without using drugs. While everyone goes through pain differently, hopefully, some of the following methods can help you manage your pain to a tolerable level.
As someone in chronic pain, you know that when you visit your primary care physician, their first option to treat your pain is with medication. Even for someone who hasn’t dealt with severe addiction, opioid medication isn’t always the desired route to treat pain.
In some cases, opioid medication benefits will outweigh the risks for someone with chronic pain. However, not everyone has that same luxury. Fortunately, there are various natural methods and treatments to manage pain as effectively as medicine. Even better, these natural avenues produce none of the harmful side effects or potential for relapse.
If you’ve been struggling with chronic pain and you’re recovering from opioid addiction, various types of natural pain management and holistic methods exist that allow you to continue on your path toward sobriety. Here is a list of effective natural pain relief.
Harvard Health suggests that practicing yoga will improve both your physical and mental well-being. There are numerous variations of yoga that are used in addiction recovery to manage several types of chronic pain. These include fibromyalgia, migraines, and low back pain, to name a few. Yoga does more than just relieve pain, and someone who practices will connect to a place of peace and find an inner connection. These are similar principles that you’ll find in a 12-step program.
Physical Therapy (PT)
Physical therapy is an ideal choice to treat chronic pain instead of using opioid drugs. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes physical therapy as a highly effective means of treating pain that often produces better results than opioid medication. If you’re someone in recovery and want to avoid opioid drugs, by all means necessary, working alongside a physical therapist will reduce your pain and improve your overall physical health. Physical therapists commonly use exercise therapy or heat and cold applications in conjunction with your treatment to ensure optimal results.
When you receive a massage from a professional, they know all the critical points to relieve stress, muscle and joint pain, and tension. In some cases, those experiencing sleep issues as a result of their recovery can also benefit from massage therapy. Massage therapists have the expertise to tailor their treatments in a way that’s beneficial for their patients and prevents them from further aggravating it. Depending on the severity and type of pain you’re experiencing, massage therapy will help those dealing with neck pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel, shoulder pain, lower back pain, and headaches.
Although you might be afraid of needles, acupuncture can also be another means of naturally treating your chronic pain. The practice stems from ancient Chinese alternative medicine used primarily for pain relief. Research isn’t clear whether acupuncture can help with other medical conditions, but it has been shown to be effective in treating pain from arthritis, back and neck pain, and headaches. The method uses small needles that stimulate nerves in our body and sends signals to the brain to release beta-endorphins, which is the body’s natural way of relieving pain.
Studies have found that meditation helped significantly to reduce pain. As a bonus, meditating will also lower your levels of anxiety and depression to improve your mental health. If you’ve gone through professional addiction treatment, you’ve likely taken part in meditation exercises as they are common during drug and alcohol programs and continue to sober living or aftercare programs. It helps a person establish a healthy and consistent routine while they’re getting sober.
We understand that exercise isn’t for everyone. In some cases, a person with chronic pain isn’t motivated to exercise, but they’re physically limited to what they can do. However, if you are capable of simple exercises, there are many pain-relieving properties stemming from getting your heart rate up. We produce endorphins during an exercise session that interact with receptors in our brain to change how we experience pain. In return, it increases our pain threshold, which is amazing if you’re dealing with constant and nagging pain.
Exercise can help reduce pain for almost any condition you experience. With that said, if you can manage to exercise, you don’t need to become a jacked-up gym rat to relieve your pain, unless you want to, of course. Experts have found that combining many simple forms of exercise will provide effective pain relief during recovery, including strengthening exercises, stretching, push-ups, swimming, biking, or walking.
In addition to treating pain, exercising makes you feel good when that rush of endorphins hits you. Not to mention, it can help you feel better about yourself physically when you see the results in the mirror. Before starting at the gym, you must consult with your primary care physician to ensure you’re ready to handle this activity.
Changing Your Diet
By improving your dietary habits, you can reduce the amount of pain you have. It’s no secret that sugary and fatty foods can lead to inflammation, and as a result, lead to a worsening of your chronic pain. However, improving what you put into your body and consuming more vegetables, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts can lead to immediate changes in how you feel. Foods rich in omega-3’s such as flaxseed oil, olive oil, salmon, mackerel, and sardines will help reduce inflammation. Dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts can also help with flare-ups.
Individual or Group Counseling
We often overlook the power of talking to someone about what we’re going through. Many times a person with emotional trauma will also experience physical pain as the two are connected. One such study found that a staggering 97.1 percent of individuals with chronic pain experience at least one emotional or physical trauma before their chronic pain.
These numbers prove a point of how intertwined physical pain is with our mental well-being. Attending individual or group counseling can help reduce these feelings of isolation you may encounter and remind you that despite dealing with chronic pain, you are never alone. With that said, an estimated 60 percent of those dealing with addiction also experience chronic pain.
Counseling will also help educate you on how to perceive pain and reduce adverse thoughts caused by pain. Emotional pain is shown to intensify physical pain, so someone in recovery must work through their internal pain and trauma. It’ll allow you to see improvements emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Unfortunately, sometimes the pain a person experiences is severe enough that none of the options we addressed above are enough. For some, their debilitating pain won’t allow them to exercise, do yoga, or even leave the house, and chemical relief might be their only option. Fortunately, there are non-addictive alternative medications that can treat your pain in recovery.
Non-opioid drugs that we’ll mention below can help with your pain management journey and decrease reliance on opioid painkillers. These medications include the following:
- Glucocorticoid steroids: Glucocorticoid drugs are human-made versions of glucocorticoids, which are steroids that naturally occur in our bodies. They provide several functions, including interrupting inflammation by moving cells to suppress the proteins that cause inflammation and help how your body responds to stress while regulating how it uses sugar and fat.
- Acetaminophen: Acetaminophen is a common over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication used to treat mild-to-moderate pain. It’s most typically associated with “Tylenol.” It can also help reduce a fever. Even though it’s over-the-counter, you should speak with your primary care physician to determine if you’re safe to use it.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Another common over-the-counter (OTC) medication that helps reduce inflammation and swelling. Although it reduces pain like acetaminophen, it’s better at reducing inflammation. These drugs include Advil, Motrin, or Toradol. Again, just because it’s over-the-counter doesn’t mean you should use these without consulting with your primary care physician first to determine your body is capable of handling the medication.
- Beta-blockers: Beta-blockers are typically used to treat individuals with blood pressure problems, but drugs like Propranolol have been shown to help reduce chronic pain, especially for those dealing with fibromyalgia.
- Antidepressants: As was mentioned above, 97.1 percent of those with chronic pain also have at least one emotional or physical trauma in their lives. In addiction treatment, it can only be effective when you get to the core of the problem: what is causing you to be addicted to drugs? The same principle applies here. By getting to the root of your chronic pain, it allows you to better treat it. While this won’t be the case for everyone, treating depression symptoms might be the key to solving your chronic pain.
- Anticonvulsants: Nerve conditions like complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), also known as RSD, can be managed with medications like gabapentin or pregabalin. Although these medications were initially used to treat people with epilepsy, medical experts found that the nerve-calming qualities of these medications can help quiet the stabbing or shooting pain and burning caused by severe nerve damage. Pain like this can also lead to suicidal thoughts. Complex regional pain syndrome is among the most painful of all medical problems in existence and has even been nicknamed the “suicide disease.” Finding any relief is crucial.
We understand that struggling with chronic pain and not getting any answers can lead you down some dark roads, but if you’re experiencing dark or suicidal thoughts, help is available. Please reach out for help. If it’s an emergency, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. Although there might feel like no end in sight because of your pain, we can help you find ways to manage it.
Once you complete addiction treatment, your journey has only begun. If you leave without medication and you’re seeking new solutions to battle chronic pain, it’s going to be an understandable challenge. Coping with unresolved chronic pain and balancing the psychological and physical ramifications of being newly sober can be a recipe for disaster. Although relapsing may be in your mind, you must find ways to implement what you learned in treatment to cope. You need to remember how bad it was when you were using the drugs and how quickly a tolerance will develop to cope with your chronic pain.
What makes this process even more complicated is the after-effects you might be going through. Some people who abuse opioids will encounter post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) when withdrawal symptoms like depression, anxiety, or insomnia persist for months or even years after cessation. Dealing with pain on top of these symptoms may feel like the outcome is bleak, but we promise, with the right help, you can get through this.
Untreated chronic pain will lead to many changes in your personality and physical abilities. Some of these changes include:
- Significant changes in mood and severe mood swings
- Anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions
- Cardiovascular decline, resulting from the stress
- Sexual dysfunction
Chronic pain is often the primary factor when it comes to addiction. Like addiction, chronic pain correlates with identical risk factors, including genetics, mood disorders, and central nervous system dysfunction, all linked to higher levels of addiction and chronic pain. Despite using painkillers with good intentions to cure the pain, once they develop a tolerance, they’ll endure withdrawal symptoms on top of their pain if they run out of the medication.
Like the recovery journey where a person learns how to cope with events they’ll face in life, they must also learn how to cope with their chronic pain. This doesn’t equate to suffering, but it means good coping strategies alongside medical or non-medical pain management to reduce the side effects stemming from their chronic pain.
At the beginning of this article, we discussed that all medical procedures that may lead to pain medication are terrifying for someone in recovery. Former addict Leah Messer from the hit show Teen Mom recently opened up about her fear of getting surgery for a benign tumor her doctor found. Although she’s one case out of millions, it speaks to how easily relapse can occur, even if you’re monitored by a doctor. It begs the question—how to control pain after surgery if you’re in recovery?
After surgery, your best course of action is communication. Your doctors and nurses need to know about your pain and whether or not it’s controlled. If you’re in pain, please mention it, and don’t feel guilty about it. By doing this, doctors and nurses can measure the pain, and during recovery, they will frequently ask you to report how you’re feeling. You will measure this by saying if it’s a zero for no pain or a 10 as the worst pain you could possibly experience. Reporting your pain in a number helps those treating you on how their treatment plan is working and if they should revise it.
Who Manages My Pain?
You and your surgeon will discuss the type of pain control that is most acceptable post-surgery. Depending on the severity of the surgery, the surgeon might consult with a pain specialist for ways to manage the pain after surgery. Pain specialists are equipped to handle the pain for all situations, even one as unique as someone in recovery.
At the end of the day, you’re the one who decides which pain control option is acceptable to you. A pain specialist may come and tell you their only option is to use opioids to combat the pain. However, if you vehemently deny this choice, they must abide by your wishes. Managing pain after recovery is certainly tricky, but it can be done.