On my rehab unit, a common patient question is "What can I do at home?" In the hospital or doctor's office, pain is often treated with medications. However, there are other things you can do in addition to taking your regular medications that can help you treat your pain at home.
Like pain meds, some of these approaches work well for some people and not as well for others. Try a few different things to find out what works best for you. And as always, be sure to discuss any new treatment strategies with your doctor.
Otherwise known as topical analgesics, pain relieving creams can provide some relief from aches and pains. Those available over-the-counter often contain naturally found pain relievers or counter-irritants, which can fight pain as well as stimulate sensory nerves to feel new sensations (like cold or tingling). Apply creams to the skin over and around the painful area. Be careful, however: some creams can stain fabrics. Be sure to wash your hands before you touch anything else.
Heat therapy increases blood flow to a particular area, which can help relax muscles as well as promote healing. The sensation of heat on the skin is often comforting, and can help reduce pain sensations. For heat therapy, you can use a heating pad, a hot water bottle or simply take a warm bath, depending on what kind of relief you need. A word of caution, however: heat should not be used over open wounds or irritated skin.
Cold therapy is often used for new injuries; however, it can be useful for chronic conditions as well. Applying ice to an area restricts the blood flow, and can help reduce swelling. Like heat, cold therapy also has some pain-relieving effects on the skin. A tried and true method for at home icing is a bag of frozen peas which can be easily molded to fit almost any area (just be sure to mark them as "do not eat"). You can also use a bag of ice, or purchase a reusable ice pack.
Exercise may be the last thing on your mind when you are in pain. But believe it or not, it can help. Exercise increases blood flow to sensitive areas, which can help to bring healing fluids to the pain site. Exercise can also strengthen weak muscles and increase joint and muscle flexibility. Exercise in the simplest form may simply involve slow, prolonged stretching of sensitive areas. If you can tolerate more, your doctor or physical therapist can tailor an exercise plan to fit your needs.
7. Have a Massage
Massage can help to relax tense muscles as well as increase blood flow to problem areas. You can ask your partner or a friend to gently rub your back, neck or whatever area is uncomfortable. Alternatively, you could sit in a massaging chair. If massage is a bit too intense for your pain, try gently rubbing the skin over the sore area. Sometimes, gentle touch is enough to alter pain sensations, even if it is only temporary.
TENS, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, works by sending a light current through electrodes to the skin and underlying tissues. Because it has a bit of a learning curve, TENS is not something you can just go out and buy: it should be prescribed by a doctor or physical therapist. However, once you have learned how to use your TENS unit, it can be a great pain relief tool for use at home.
American Chronic Pain Association. APCA Medications and Chronic Pain: Supplement 2007. Accessed 6/21/09. http://www.theacpa.org/documents/ACPA%20Meds%202007%20Final.pdf
Gould, Harry J III. "Understanding Pain: What it is, Why it Happens, and How It’s Managed." New York: American Academics of Neurology 2007