How to Manage Chronic Pain

Relax, Meditate, Exercise & Use the Right Herbs

Story by Lizzy Scully, Photo by Steve Fassbinder

My joints hurt most days. I suffer from Ankylosing Spondylitis – an autoimmune disease that causes my body to attack itself. At the worst times it feels like someone is jamming scalding hot knives into my joints; the rest of the time I simply ache. Despite the pain and, in fact, because of it, I move constantly. Sitting still hurts more. So I climb rocks, practice yoga, bike around town, walk, whatever I need to do to keep my body loose. I also eat well – minimal sugar, no starchy foods, lots of veggies and healthy meats. I manage my pain and am able to stay off Western medications, the side effects of which I don’t like. And while I no longer can do whatever I want, when I want, this process is teaching me to listen to and respect my body like I didn’t do in my twenties. Here are some useful tips I’ve found that have really helped me on my journey:

  1. I relax daily, taking 15 to 60 minutes daily to be by myself in order to meditate, play music, roll around on my yoga mat, or lounge in hot water. My meditation practice has, in fact, changed my life, and my brain. Significant research now illustrates people can “influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial” through mindfulness meditation. Stress triggers my autoimmune response, so the less stress the better I feel. (Read more…)
  2. As mentioned in #1, I sit in hot water as often as possible. It may sound counter-intuitive to sit in hot water when I’m suffering from chronic inflammation. Aren’t you supposed to ice when you have aches and pains? Not according to my rheumatologist, who always jokes that his patients regularly ask him for prescriptions for hot tubs (the answer is, sadly, no). There are times when heat is not ideal, such as when you have an acutely inflamed or swollen joint. But it’s a great way to relieve muscle spasms or muscle tightness and to increase the range of motion of your joints. I especially like using Green Goo’s Herbal Sitz Bath. I know this product is intended for new mamas to soothe the healing process after birth, but I love the lavender, rose, sage and other herbal ingredients. Coupled with sea salts, these fragrances both relax me and soothe my sore joints and muscles.
  3. I stretch whenever I can—at the airport when I’m waiting to board the plane, before I get out of bed in the morning, when I’m standing in a long line at the grocery store, or whenever I have a free minute to lie on my living room carpet. I have practiced yoga for 20 years, and so I have a great repertoire of poses to choose from, including standing poses for when I’m standing in lines and spinal twists for when I’m lying in bed. If you don’t have a regular yoga practice, I recommend you find a great teacher and take a weekly class. Then start working random poses into your day. People sometimes stare at me strangely, but the older I get, the less I care. I care more about feeling great!
  4. I move and/or exercise daily. Sometimes when the pain is bad, I’ll just go on a walk, lie on my floor and stretch, dance on my patio in the warm sunshine or ride my bicycle to the post office. It doesn’t matter what I do as long as I keep the blood flowing. When my body can handle it, I do more serious exercise routines, such as the elliptical machine for 30 to 45 minutes, lift weights, or go on a short run.
  5. I take various homeopathic products (and sometimes trusty Vitamin I when things get too bad). Almost daily I take Tumeric pills, eat bone broth, eat pro-biotic foods and drinks, and I rub Arnica on my sorest spots (try Pain Relief by Green Goo; it includes a blend of anti-inflammatory oils. It's quite lovely.)