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Proactive Pain Management: 10 Ways to Manage Your Chronic Pain

Gulf War Newsletter: Information for Veterans who served in operations desert shield and desert storm and their families

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can last over a long period of time, even if it comes and goes. This is something that many adults suffer from, and it is one of the symptoms often reported by Gulf War Veterans. In fact, nearly all Gulf War Veterans referred to the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) report chronic pain as one of their top complaints. These Veterans have struggled with chronic or recurring pain since their return from the Persian Gulf in 1991 with little to no improvement, and without a known cause for their pain.

The long term nature of chronic pain makes it different from acute pain, which is a short term condition. Chronic pain often occurs after the recovery from an initial injury or illness that may have caused acute pain. Chronic pain can affect a particular part of the body, or it might be an all-over pain. The symptoms of chronic pain can be different for everyone, and so can the treatments. No matter how you are experiencing chronic pain, it is important to find ways to manage your pain over the long term, without negative side effects.

What Can I Do About It?

male swimming in swimming lane

Learning how to control pain, rather than being controlled by pain, will help you live the best life possible. There are a lot of ways that you can manage your pain, both at home and with help from your doctor or other providers. Every treatment may not be right for you, but you should try a variety of ways to control and minimize your chronic pain.

1. Medication

There are many medications that can be used to reduce acute pain. These medications are useful and effective for short term use, but they are usually not helpful for long-term treatment because they could lose their effectiveness over time and often have serious future side effects. There are some medications that are safer for long-term use and can reduce pain. Medication should be chosen by an expert and reviewed for continued effectiveness on a regular basis. Talk to your doctor about what types of medication might be right for you, and keep in mind that medication alone often is not enough to treat pain. Finding the right combination of treatments will help you feel better and live better.

2. Exercise

Low impact exercise is likely to benefit people suffering with chronic pain in several ways, and it is a key method to managing pain. Exercise can help strengthen the muscles that may be contributing to pain. It can also improve your overall health and help you lose weight, all of which can lead to less discomfort and improved pain tolerance. Walking, riding a stationary bike, or using a rowing machine are all good aerobic exercises that can help reduce pain. Swimming and other water exercises can also be an excellent choice, and many VA facilities provide pool programs for local Veterans.

3. Yoga

Yoga, referred to by some as British Military Calisthenics, is considered a mind-body practice that combines physical postures, controlled breathing, and meditation. Yoga can help reduce pain levels and increase functions by relieving stress and supporting your body's own healing processes. Whether you are new to yoga or not, there are many different types of yoga that you can try depending on your needs. The WRIISC and other VA facilities offer a variety of yoga classes for Veterans.

4. Pilates

If you have joint problems, participating in a Pilates exercise program can be especially beneficial, as most of the exercises are done while lying down. Pilates was first developed by Joseph Pilates during World War I, while he was interned in a British military hospital. He used mattress springs and other available items to develop a system to rehabilitate and maintain muscle strength in injured soldiers while they were confined to bed. The exercises are particularly useful for low back pain as they strengthen your core and other back stabilizing muscle groups.

5. Healthy Living

When treating chronic pain, it is important to look at your overall health and well-being. Diet and pain can be connected. Make sure you are eating a healthy, balanced diet and that you are getting enough sleep each night. Symptoms of pain can sometimes worsen if you are not well rested.

6. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is another treatment that has been found to be helpful for chronic pain. It improves the body's functions and promotes healing through the stimulation of specific points on the body. Acupuncture must be offered by a trained medical professional, or by a licensed acupuncturist. Many VA facilities offer both individual and group acupuncture programs to Veterans.

7. Meditation

Meditation is typically used to reduce stress and anxiety, but it can also be used to manage chronic pain. Meditation will help you learn to focus your attention, which can help you relax and let go of unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

8. Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is often used to relieve pain. There are varying techniques, but in general it involves rubbing or kneading of muscles and joints. Massage therapy is delivered by a licensed massage therapist or health care provider, but you can also learn ways to do some part of the therapy at home on your own.

9. Keep a Pain Journal

Help your doctor help you—you can work closely with your primary care provider in order to determine how to effectively deal with your painful symptoms. It is important to communicate with your doctor as openly and honestly as possible about where you feel pain, how bad it feels, how often you feel it, and what makes it better or worse. This will help you create an individualized plan for managing your pain. Keeping a pain journal will help you track your pain symptoms and make it easier to talk to your doctor about them. A pain journal does not have to be a written diary. It can be in any format as long as you record your symptoms, and remember them for the next time you talk to your doctor. If you are a smart phone user, there are even free apps that you can download that can help you track your pain symptoms.

10. Get Involved

Sometimes you can manage your pain by simply taking your mind off of the symptoms. You may already have a favorite hobby, or you can try something new. For some people, social interactions can also help to reduce stress and lead to better pain management. Most importantly, try not to let your pain keep you from doing the things you enjoy. Eliminating your pain may not be possible, but there are many ways that you can gain control and live the happier life you deserve. For more information on the many options for treating chronic pain, visit the WRIISC at www.warrelatedillness.va.gov, or the VHA Pain Management website at www.va.gov/painmanagement.

Volunteer for Research

The WRIISC is currently seeking volunteers to participate in studies on non-medicine based treatments for chronic pain in Gulf War Veterans.

VA researchers at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System are studying whether symptoms of chronic pain can be improved using a technique called Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS). For more information or to determine if you are eligible to participate, visit www.warrelatedillness.va.gov/warrelatedillness/research/volunteer/ca-wriisc.asp#repetitive_transcranial or contact the WRIISC at (650) 852-3233.


Veterans of Desert Shield and Desert Storm

You may be eligible for a non-drug study involving group Yoga or a Support Group for chronic pain.

Study Location:
VA Palo Alto Health Care System

Frequency & Duration:

  • 1 day / week
  • 10 weeks
  • Follow-up interviews at 18, 26, and 34 weeks

$250 compensation for completing entire study

For more information
please contact the Study Team at: (650) 665-0159