6 Ways to Manage Chronic Pain—and When to See a Doctor   

6 Ways to Manage Chronic Pain—and When to See a Doctor

Rear view of a man sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his lower back in pain.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Danielle B. Groves, M.D.

There’s no gain to perpetual pain. Unrelenting pain can rob you of sleep and the ability to work or move easily. Hopelessness, depression, irritability and loneliness often accompany the pain and propel you to overeat. 

“One feeds into the other, which makes chronic pain harder to help,” says Danielle Groves, M.D., attending physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at Pascack Valley Medical Group. “Managing chronic pain usually needs more than one approach. There’s no single answer for a patient, and doctor and patient must work together to get from point A to point B.

Dr. Groves offers six ways you can start to find relief from chronic pain.

1. Physical Therapy

Physical therapists can help determine the cause of discomfort, which isn’t always obvious. They also aid patients in stretching muscles properly and teach them how to strengthen weak muscles that may contribute to pain. They also use heat, ice, ultrasound, electric stimulation and deep-tissue massage.

2. Daily Exercise

While it may seem counterintuitive, moving painful body parts can soothe soreness by stretching, strengthening and stabilizing muscles and tendons that are too tight or are prone to contract. Working out not only improves mobility and strength but also burns calories, which in turn helps to lose weight that can strain joints.

Dr. Groves suggests:

  • Walking on a treadmill or outdoors
  • Walking in the shallow end of a pool
  • Yoga and Pilates
  • One-on-one exercise classes or working with a personal trainer for beginners

3. Medication

Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), acetaminophen and lidocaine patches sometimes may break the cycle of pain. You also can try supplements with turmeric, glucosamine and chondroitin, which can counter arthritic joint pain.

If those are not effective, your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxers, prescription painkillers or sleep aids. Doctors should supervise all over-the-counter and prescribed supplements, pain relievers, muscle relaxers (for acute muscle spasms).

4. Alternative Medicine

Chiropractors and acupuncturists can offer alternatives to standard care:

Chiropractors manipulate joints and align the spine, which can relieve pain in joints, muscles and connective tissues.

Acupuncture is traditional medicine using needles to balance and restore the flow of energy, or chi, through pathways in the body and thus ease pain.

5. Bliss Breaks

Find inner peace with mind/body practices that ease the side effects of long-term pain, anxiety, insomnia and depression.

As with exercise, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Find the technique that works for you. Besides meditation, you can tune out pain via:

  • Deep breathing. Expand your belly as you inhale, hold the breath, then deflate the belly, for four seconds each phase.
  • Progressive relaxation. Slowly tense and then relax each muscle group, from head to foot.
  • Guided imagery. Lay or sit down and imagine a peaceful place which nurtures your senses.
  • Biofeedback. A physical therapist may help you to train yourself to control heartbeats or release spasms.

6. Injections

If these previous measures are insufficient, see a pain management doctor. Physiatrists—rehabilitation medicine physicians—treat the whole body, not just specific symptoms, Dr. Groves says. They can direct your care to avoid overlaps or unneeded tests.

Your doctor may suggest corticosteroid shots targeting inflamed joints or trigger point injections to help calm a muscle that is in spasm. They may recommend gel injections to aid in the treatment of osteoarthritic knee joints.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is an outpatient procedure in which radio waves heat and seal off part of a nerve to block pain signals sent to your brain. “That can bring significant relief for up to a year,” Dr. Groves says. 

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) is an outpatient procedure that uses heat to burn small pain sensing nerves surrounding the joints of the spine, tailbone or knees. “That can bring significant relief for up to a year,” Dr. Groves says.

Spinal cord stimulation is an advanced pain procedure that uses an implanted device to block pain signals from being communicated via the spine to the brain.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


Subscribe to get the latest health tips from our expert clinicians delivered weekly to your inbox.

We use cookies to improve your experience. Please read our Privacy Policy or click Accept.