Five tips for managing pain

If you are over thirty five and spend a lot of your day sitting at a computer, it is a pretty safe bet that you are in pain. Maybe it is only when you wake up, or at the end of the day, or after you have been sitting for too long, but you’ve come to accept this as a normal part of your life. You do yoga, or get frequent massages, or maybe you meditate, or medicate… These things help, but ultimately you feel like you just need to learn to live with it.

I’ve suffered from various forms of chronic pain for over twenty years. I thought I was managing it too, but then things suddenly got a lot worse. I was unable to sleep more than five hours a night, and could barely walk a mile without pain. This set off all kinds of alarm bells in my head because I know that these two indicators (sleep and walking) are crucial to long term health and wellbeing. If you or anyone you know can’t sleep at least six hours a night or walk half an hour a day, they should see a doctor immediately.

And I did see doctors. Lots of them. The problem was that everyone seemed to tell me something different. Finally, I took things into my own hands. I spent hundreds of hours on YouTube, I found a personal trainer, and (more recently) I was also fortunate enough to begin working with a physical therapist in the Netherlands. I won’t lie, it has been really hard work. Over the past three years I’ve spent far more time and energy on my physical health than I ever have before — and I’ve always been fairly active. I still have a long way to go, but recently I hit a couple of major landmarks: I am now sleeping more than six hours a night (on average), and I am also able to walk over mile without pain. It may not sound like much, but it is a huge quality of life improvement for me!

I won’t bore you with all the details of my particular problem,1 but I do want to share some basic principles I’ve learned on this journey which I think will be of use to everyone. Please understand that I am not a trained medical professional. Your personal condition may require different advice, so be sure to speak to a doctor before doing anything. That being said, here are the five lessons I’ve learned:

First of all, pain in one part of your body is often due to weakness in another part of your body. Yes, it might help to massage, foam roll, and stretch the part that is hurting, but if you don’t also correct the imbalance that is causing the pain in the first place, you will never get better.

Second, one of the best ways to correct such imbalances is to do strength training, preferably with free weights. You should never do weight lifting without proper training, so make sure to find a reliable personal trainer before you start. Otherwise you can easily cause new injuries. Know that a good personal trainer can be very expensive. Trust me, it’s worth it. When done correctly, strength training is one of the most effective ways to identify and correct muscular imbalances in your body.

Third, if you have muscles that are under-used, you probably cheat” by relying on other muscles to compensate. This means that many exercises which are helpful for other people might not work for you, and may even make things worse. This is just as true of yoga and pilates as it is of strength training. Subtle changes in form can make a huge difference. For instance, when doing a split squat,” leaning your body forward slightly will ensure that you engage your glute muscles instead of your quads. There are some excellent YouTube and Instagram channels2 which can help make sure you are exercising the right muscles every time.

Fourth, you probably also have to adjust how you sit, sleep, and walk. Yes, sitting is a big part of the problem, but switching to a standing desk is not a miracle cure. Many people end up getting new problems because they stand incorrectly, or for too long. Rather, it is better to get up and move around regularly throughout the day. (Or alternate between sitting and standing.) For sleeping it might help to get some extra pillows or change the kind of mattress you use. And for walking you should find a therapist who does something called gait analysis.” They can identify mechanical faults in your movement and give you exercises to help fix them.

Finally, the fifth rule is to be patient and get lots of rest. Retraining your body will take years of hard work. While some benefits might be almost immediate, others will take time. You need to be patient. Some things may even get worse before they get better. (Causing you to reevaluate your program and go back to you trainer and therapist for advice.) You don’t need to go to the gym every day. Two or three times a week (if done right) can lead to significant improvements. Remember that your body needs time to recover from the training. Pushing too hard will slow things down and cause new injuries. Take a day off every week, and a week off every four to six weeks. (On those days you can go for a walk, or do a deload” set at half your maximum weight.)

No, you will never be twenty again. As you get older you will likely have to spend even more time taking care of your body. But unless you have a debilitating condition for which there is no known cure, you shouldn’t accept constant pain and lack of sleep as a normal part of your life. Yes, it takes time and money — both of which are hard to come by — but failure to take care of these problems will probably cost more in the long run, and will rob you of time, especially quality time, every day. Do yourself a favor and start fixing the problem now.

  1. For some more detailed information on my own hip pain and what I’ve done to tackle it, please check out this page which I maintain on the topic.↩︎

  2. I try to maintain a list here.↩︎