6 Tips for Managing Chronic Pain as an Athlete : People have a lot of misconceptions when you tell them that you have a chronic pain condition. One of the most frequent assumptions is that people with certain disorders can’t be athletes.
You know better. You understand how physical fitness eases your symptoms and keeps you going strong despite your diagnosis. However, you still have to control your aches. Here are six tips for managing chronic pain as an athlete.
Understand Your Medication Choices
There’s nothing wrong with using medication to treat pain. It doesn’t make you less tough — it can make your condition manageable. However, it’s vital to recognize the different classifications of drugs so that you understand what you’re taking.
Over-the-counter medications fall into three principal categories:
- Acetaminophen: This medicine, the main ingredient in Tylenol, blocks pain receptors in the brain.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These medications lower the production of prostaglandins, substances that irritate nerve endings. They include aspirin, naproxen sodium (the main ingredient in Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil).
- Topical: These medications consist of creams and ointments containing various compounds to ease pain. Some popular remedies include capsaicin, the compound that gives hot peppers their spice, and arnica, a herb that stimulates circulation, encouraging healing.
If your chronic pain qualifies as severe enough, your doctor may prescribe medications to help you control it. These drugs fall into the following categories:
- Opioids: Like Tylenol, these substances alter how your brain perceives pain. Doctors limit their use because of the potential for addiction. However, they prescribe them in cases where other treatments fail to work effectively.
- Steroids: These potent anti-inflammatory medications work like NSAIDs. However, their strength sometimes leads to side effects like weight gain that some patients find intolerable.
- Anti-seizure medications: Drugs like gabapentin and Lyrica interrupt nerve messages from the brain. Doctors often prescribe them for fibromyalgia.
- Muscle relaxers: These drugs help to ease tense muscles, which can cramp and cause considerable pain. They often include severe fatigue as a side effect.
- Antidepressants: These medications alter the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain, altering your pain perception.
Finding the right medication for your condition may take considerable trial and error, so please be patient. You may have to return to your doctor multiple times over several months or years to find an effective treatment regimen. Medicine isn’t an exact science, as multiple factors can contribute to chronic pain conditions — the underlying cause might be something you don’t expect. For example, some people with chronic and severe migraines have an underlying heart defect that wouldn’t show up on an MRI, but which can nevertheless severely impact their quality of life. Also, keep in mind that the political landscape influences your access to certain medications. Many state and local governments limit prescribing certain drugs, meaning you may have to seek alternatives outside of your traditional treatment regimen if the new rules impact it.
Acupuncture is one such alternative treatment that works effectively in many cases. Eastern practitioners explain that the needles manipulate the flow of chi or vital energy throughout the body. Western scientists theorize that the needles activate nerve endings, interrupting pain signals from the body to the brain. It stimulates the nervous system, convincing your brain to release a chemical cocktail that eases pain.A few insurance plans today cover acupuncture, but you may have to pay out of pocket. Expect to shell out $75 to $150 for your average treatment.
However, don’t fear the needles. They’re super-tiny, meaning you barely feel the insertion. Once your practitioner applies the needles, they’ll leave you to rest like a human pincushion for a while before manipulating them some more to ease your pain.
Book a Massage
Another treatment beneficial for athletes with chronic pain is massage. Although you may need to pay out of pocket, you could experience enormous relief.Massage therapy works particularly well for athletes who have painful muscle knots and spasms. Your practitioner can manipulate these, getting them to release, instantly easing your pain.
You might notice a mild achiness after your treatment. This sensation may stem from the deep relaxation of deeper-level connective tissues or the release of toxins from your body’s cells. Drink plenty of water after your treatment to help flush your system and hydrate your ligaments and tendons.
Run Hot and Cold
You have several options for hot and cold therapy in treating chronic pain as an athlete. It helps to learn the principles of when to use each methodology for maximum effectiveness.
Heat increases blood flow to an injured area. It also improves the synovial fluid flow around joints and is often used by those with arthritis and spinal conditions like ankylosing spondylitis for this purpose. It can also help reduce stiffness and muscle spasms, useful if cramps, well, cramp your style. However, you shouldn’t use it for the first 48 hours after injury as your body’s natural defenses will send sufficient heat to the area.
Cold works by numbing the affected area. It’s most often used for acute injuries to reduce the associated pain and inflammation. This treatment works well for conditions like tendonitis and bursitis, where the fluids and connective tissues around your joints become inflamed.
Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Everything you put in your body influences your chemistry — including food. To ease chronic pain as an athlete, you might find comfort in an anti-inflammatory diet. You don’t have to radically alter your meal plan. You only need to know what to eat and avoid.
You should avoid:
- White flour: The production of all-purpose flour creates a chemical byproduct called alloxan that scientists use to induce diabetes in laboratory animals. It provides rapidly absorbing calories but not much more in terms of nutritional value.
- Sugar: Sugar prompts your body to release inflammatory chemicals called cytokines.
- Processed meats: The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies these as carcinogenic.
- Anything highly processed: Any highly processed food may contain additives that trigger inflammation.
What should you eat? Lean proteins, such as nuts, seeds and lentils. If you don’t adhere to a vegan or vegetarian diet, you can include chicken, fish and eggs. Dairy increases inflammation in some people — experiment to see how it affects you.
You should also increase your consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. These provide crucial phytonutrients and antioxidants. If you aren’t limiting your carbohydrate intake, whole grains such as quinoa offer speedy energy to power your workouts.
Stretch and Embrace Rest Days
Sometimes, pain stems from adhesions when nerve fibers get trapped amid your muscle tissue. Much like a tag on the back of your sweater can continually irritate your neck, these entangled threads keep sending pain signals to your brain.
Stretching can help minimize pain from adhesions, gently releasing these fibers back into their natural shape. A regular yoga practice should be a must for all athletes, regardless of chronic pain. Many top trainers now recommend methods like yin on rest days to speed recovery.
Please do ensure you take your rest days. Exercise creates microscopic tears in muscle fibers — you get stronger when these heal. However, recovery and development only occur when you give your body a break.
Manage Chronic Pain as an Athlete
There’s no need to let your aches keep you off the field or court. Manage chronic pain as an athlete with a few smart tips.
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