A throbbing head, a crick in the neck, allover muscle tension—yeow! Chances are you’re no stranger to these kinds of everyday aches and pains. One in four Americans say they’ve had a bout of pain that has lasted more than a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But, fortunately, there’s plenty you can do besides pop ibuprofen to work out the kinks so a sore back or a bum shoulder doesn’t slow you down. There are even lifestyle moves that make a difference. Here’s what you need to know to ward off pain—and feel better if you’re already hurting.
1. Pain is output from the brain.
While we used to believe that pain originated within the tissues of our body, we now understand that pain does not exist until the brain determines it does. The brain uses a virtual “road map” to direct an output of pain to tissues that it suspects may be in danger. This process acts as a means of communication between the brain and the tissues of the body, to serve as a defense against possible injury or disease.
2. We Don’t Want To Cancel Plans
When we cancel plans we’re not trying to passive aggressively tell you that we don’t want to hang out. We do want to feel well enough to do all of the fun things, but sometimes we just don’t. A friend, and fellow chronic pain sufferer, and I were just talking about this today. She told me: “I want people to know that I want to feel good and be able to have fun and enjoy things. But, when I can’t, it’s not that I don’t want to be involved, and I hope to be invited again.”
We both agreed that dealing with chronic pain can be mentally exhausting. When I make plans I never know how I’m going to feel when the day arrives. Sometimes I’m OK, other times I make myself push through the pain, but there are occasions where I need to lie down with ice even though I’d rather be out doing the fun thing.
Brandy Horrell summed this up perfectly on The Mighty: “If I back out on plans at the last minute, I’m not flaky. I just can’t predict how I’m going to feel day to day.”
3. Women are more prone to pain
Women report feeling more intense physical discomfort from almost every kind of ailment—whether an ankle sprain or diabetes—says a study from Stanford University. (Lucky us.) Experts aren’t clear on why, but research suggests that a mix of hormonal, genetic, immune response, and psychological factors are involved.
Research from the University of Michigan, for example, has found that fluctuating estrogen levels during a woman’s menstrual cycle may play a role. When the hormone drops, so do pain-dampening endorphins, making the body less able to handle discomfort.
Another theory points to cultural expectations: “We know that men are often compelled by stereotypes to act tough and manly,” says Roger Fillingim, PhD, director of the UF Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence at the University of Florida. “So they may be reporting less pain than they really feel. By the same token, women may be encouraged to report pain.”
4. Rest is not always best
Back spasming? Shoulder aching? Your instinct may be to move as little as possible. But doctors actually now recommend the opposite for minor muscle aches and joint pain. “We often tell patients to resume normal activities—including exercise—as soon as possible,” says Jennifer Solomon, MD, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Research supports the advice: One review found that people with lower back pain who were advised to stay active had less pain and better function than people told to take it easy.
You may also want to ask your doc about a strength-training program or course of physical therapy for the part that ails you. A 2015 study found that the sooner people got PT for lower back pain, the less likely they were to receive surgery, spinal injections, or opioids later on.
5. We Don’t Need Your Pity
“I absolutely do not want your pity,” pain sufferer Angie Glenn told The Mighty. “What I do want is your love and acceptance.” Please don’t feel sorry for us, and please don’t think we’re being dramatic about how much pain we’re in. The reports that some people accused Gaga of using chronic pain as an excuse to postpone her tour because she just didn’t feel like performing are exactly why we don’t tell people we have chronic pain; two of the unwanted reactions include pity, and being accused of making excuses to get out of something.
“I use the word ‘suffer’ not for pity, or attention, and have been disappointed to see people online suggest that I’m being dramatic, making this up, or playing the victim to get out of touring,” Gaga explained in an Instagram post. “If you knew me, you would know this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m a fighter.”