Special Thanks to Tiffany for sharing her story with us. As a migraine sufferer and dealing with chronic pain after having shingles twice I have some experience with chronic pain, but not to the extent that I know some mamas do. Thank you so much, Tiffany, for sharing your experience. I know it would be the last thing I’d imagine wanting to do while in pain, but sometimes exercise can be the best (adjunctive) medicine!
Hi there, mamas! My name is Tiffany Chacon and I’m a blogger at Mommy of Mayhem. I’m a mom of two beautiful, energetic boys and I suffer from chronic pain. In this post I’ll be sharing about how exercise has helped me to live my best life even with chronic pain. I’ll be discussing what exercise can do for you (even when you’re in pain!) and some of my favorite exercises that have helped me with my pain. To be clear: I am not a doctor or medical professional. Please discuss any changes to your health and pain with your physician.
According to a study done in 2016, approximately 20% of adults in the United States had chronic pain. That’s about 50 million people.
Being a mom with chronic pain is a whole other ball game.
At the beginning of 2013, I started to have debilitating pain in my joints. At the time, I was a riding instructor at a local horse farm. I would get home from teaching lessons at the end of the day and literally crawl up the stairs to our apartment because I was in so much pain. I started to see an orthopedic doctor and then a sports medicine doctor, and when neither helped, I went to a rheumatologist, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, a physical therapist…the list goes on. I got a knee brace, shoe insoles, a plethora of medications and side effects, and a myriad of injections in my joints. Instead of getting better, the pain only got worse.
Three years into my journey with pain, I was consistently walking with a cane and taking several medications daily just to function. The pain kept me up at night. There were days when I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom without help from my husband.
Since those early days of battling with chronic pain, I’ve found several things that keep me functional – and one imperative thing is exercise and movement. I have good days and bad days, but even on the bad days I know it’s important to keep moving.
Why is it important to exercise when you have chronic pain?
When you’re in pain, the last thing you want to do is exercise. Oftentimes we want to lay in bed or sit as still as possible. But, that can actually make the pain worse.
I spoke with Dr. Pamela Stearns, a family practice physician and fellow chronic pain sufferer. She said, “It can be a vicious cycle – when you’re in pain, you don’t want to move, but when you don’t move, it exacerbates the pain. You’re chronically trying to avoid movement in those muscles and then those muscles atrophy. That makes you weaker and regular movements can be more difficult.”
So, what can we do about this?
Dr. Stearns recommends starting small. “Set your timer for five minutes and exercise for five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. You have to be okay with incremental growth.” She says you won’t notice results overnight, but you do have to put in the daily work. “It’s like getting a college degree – you don’t receive your degree for four years, but you do have to show up to class every day.”
We all know the benefits of exercising, but here’s a few you might not know about:
– Exercise helps immediately reduce anxiety in the short-term and risk of clinical depression and anxiety in the long-term
– Exercise helps you sleep better. (Umm, hellooo! I know we ALL need that!)
– Exercise improves your immune system – so those of us with autoimmune illnesses can benefit greatly from regular exercise.
– Exercise releases endorphins, which is your body’s natural pain reliever and “happy chemical.”
Tips for getting started:
– Start small: we can get this idea that in order to workout we need to go to the gym and do an hour and a half workout complete with cardio, weights, stretching and recovery. The reality is that this isn’t achievable for most of us – and it’s not even necessary! Recent research shows that even 10 or 15-minute long workouts can lead to the same results as much longer workouts.
– Give yourself a goal: remember how fit you got before your wedding? It’s because you had a very well-defined goal. The same reasoning works here – when we give ourselves goals, we’re more likely to work toward them. Maybe the goal is to work out 4 times a week, or be able to run a mile, or to simply be able to be active with your kiddos.
– Pick something you’ll enjoy: don’t force yourself to do something you hate. Ain’t nobody got time for that. If you don’t like swimming, don’t force yourself to swim. However, if you enjoy being outside, move your workouts outdoors. Or if there’s a particular sport you love to play, find a way to do that for your exercise.
– Find a tribe: the more support and accountability you have, the more likely you are to stick with something. And your tribe doesn’t need to be physically present – you can find an online tribe like Momma Strong. If you can, find others who also have chronic pain. Dr. Stearns recommends finding a personal trainer who is adept at working with chronic pain – if you hire someone who doesn’t know how to work with chronic pain, they might push you too hard, which could discourage you from exercising.
– Put it in your schedule: write it down in your planner, schedule it with your husband, tell your kids about it.
– Get motivated – remind yourself WHY you’re doing this: for me, I work out so that I can be more physically present with my family and play actively with my kids. Find some motivational quotes or songs to get you mentally ready to workout!
– Don’t compare yourself to anyone – even your “old” self. There have been days when I went to the gym and I got tears in my eyes looking around at people exercising so easily – and here I was, in so much pain, barely able to get onto the elliptical. Instead of looking at the negative, we have to focus on what we ARE doing. Tell yourself: I am showing up. I am doing what I need to do for myself and my family. Even if it’s ugly and clumsy, we’re doing what we can do and that’s the BEST thing.
Here’s Some of my Favorite Exercises for My Chronic Pain:
1. Walking – Walking is a seriously underrated form of exercise. And, it can allow you to do two things at once: you can talk on the phone, listen to a podcast or audiobook, help your dog or kids get outside, and way more. For me, I love to pick a shaded, scenic walk where I can pray or have a nice conversation with my husband. On good days, I’ll add in a few minutes of running. On bad days, I just take it nice and easy.
2. Swimming/Pool workouts – The pool is the perfect place for people with chronic pain to exercise. The water is a low impact aerobic exercise that also builds muscle. That’s a win-win if you have chronic pain (and happen to have access to a pool)! For those of us with chronic pain, the water can feel amazing because of our relative weightlessness in the water. On extra bad days, I try to go to our local YMCA and swim really slow, steady laps. I’ll take a break after each lap and just float in the water. No one ever said workouts need to hurt your body!
3. Yoga – in many ways I credit yoga with how much functionality I have these days. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could barely walk for months. But getting into a regular routine of light yoga helped my joints to get used to motion again. If I had one joint in particular that was bothering me (such as my hips or wrist) I would look up a yoga flow that would specifically aid with the recovery of that joint. YouTube is my best friend. I would search for yoga videos such as: Yoga for Hip Pain or Yoga for Back Pain.
4. Elliptical or Seated Stationary Bicycle – this is another exercise that got me moving again when I was at my worst pain. Both of these exercise machines are low-impact and easy on your joints. There were days that I went to the gym and just did 10 minutes on the elliptical or bicycle and stretched for a few minutes – that’s all my body could handle, but it’s also all that my body needed! My advice is to figure out what your body needs from you, and be willing to be flexible. Don’t get down on yourself if you only have a few minutes of exercise in you – just be proud that you showed up on a hard day.
5. Stretching – even on my worst days, I try to spend a few minutes stretching. Pain always makes my body tense up, and stretching helps to relax me (along with a nice hot bath! I recommend that, too!). Stretching increases your body’s oxygen flow, improves circulation and can even relieve pain.
Whenever I’m writing, I try to take short breaks each hour to get up and stretch so that my body doesn’t get too stiff. There are also excellent chair stretching resources out there!
If I’m having pain in a particular area, I’ll look up stretches on YouTube or Pinterest to get some ideas of how to stretch that area. If you go to a massage therapist or chiropractor, ask them for stretching exercises for your problem areas.
I hope this is helpful for those of you who are suffering from chronic pain. Remember you are not alone. And, of course, please talk to your doctor before you start any exercise program.