Ways to manage chronic pain

4 min read

The old-fashioned treatment for ongoing pain, also known as chronic pain, was bed rest for weeks or months on end. We now know this is the worst possible approach. Exercise and continuing to work are key to recovery.

Forget resting if you have a painful condition like

back pain

Lying in bed for long periods may actually make the pain last longer, because inactivity makes you stiffen up, weakens your muscles and bones, and stops you from sleeping well. It can also make you feel lonely and depressed, which, in turn, may make the pain feel worse.

You'll also find that it becomes harder and harder to get going again.

A better approach to reducing pain is a combination of:

  • exercise
  • staying at work
  • physical therapy
  • painkillers

Exercise to help with pain

Choose an exercise that won't put too much strain on yourself. Good options include:

  • walking
  • swimming
  • using an exercise bike
  • dance/yoga/Pilates
  • most daily activities and hobbies

Activity and stretching need to become part of your lifestyle so you routinely do exercise little and often.

Try to be active every day, instead of only on the good days when you're not in so much pain. This may reduce the number of bad days you have and help you feel more in control.

But try and avoid overdoing it on good days, as you may then pay for this by having more and more bad days.

Go to work despite the pain

It's important to try to stay in work even though you're in pain. Research shows that people become less active and more depressed when they don't work.

Being at work will distract you from the pain and won't make your pain worse.

Talk to your supervisor or boss about the parts of your job that may be difficult to begin with, but make it clear that you want to be at work.

If you have to stay off work for a while, try to get back as soon as possible.

If you've been off work for 4 to 6 weeks, plan with your doctor, therapist or employer how and when you can return.

You could go back to work gradually. For instance, you might start with 1 day a week and gradually increase the time you spend at work.

You could also agree changes to your job or pattern of work, if it helps – a health and safety rep or occupational health department may be useful here.

Physical therapy for pain

Pain experts often recommend a short course of physical therapy.

This helps you to move better, relieves your pain, and makes daily tasks and activities, such as walking, going up stairs, or getting in and out of bed, easier.

Physical therapy for persistent pain can involve manipulation, stretching exercises and pain relief exercises.

Physical therapy is usually delivered by an

or a

is also offered by some healthcare providers, including physiotherapists, especially for back and neck pain.

Physiotherapists can give you advice on the right type of exercise and activity.

Occupational therapists can support you with environmental changes that can help you remain in work and function better at home.

If you have physical therapy, you should begin to feel the benefits after a few sessions.

Your doctor may be able to refer you for physical therapy, though in some areas physical therapy is only available privately.

Painkillers for long-term pain

It's safe to use simple painkillers to reduce your pain so you can be more active. But it's important to use painkillers carefully, as they have side effects.

is the simplest and safest painkiller. You could also try anti-inflammatory tablets like
, as long as you don't have a condition (like a stomach ulcer) that prevents you from using them.

It's important to take painkillers at the recommended dose and to take them regularly every 4 to 6 hours, preferably to overcome a flare-up of your pain or to help get you through an upcoming activity.

Don't wait until your pain is really bad before you start taking painkillers, as they won't work as well.

If a 2-week course of simple painkillers doesn't work, speak to a doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Read more about

how to choose the best painkiller for you

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.