Over the last year, the leading news story in health care has been the opioid epidemic. And chronic pain, particularly chronic back pain, has been at the top of the list of reasons why people use opioids long term.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks, and for many, it’s pain that can last the rest of their lives. Chronic pain can happen because of a genetic problem or disorder or an injury or accident. Many people who survive serious car accidents or workplace accidents deal with chronic pain for the rest of their lives.
And back injuries are a leading cause of chronic pain. Business Insider took a look at a study that dug into the relationship between chronic back pain and opioid use disorder:
Having back surgery increases your chances of relying on opioids to manage pain by over 7 times! Other back problems raise your chances by over 2 times.
Obviously, these are also people who are likely to get long-term opioid prescriptions from their doctors.
How Doctors Treat Chronic Pain
For decades, the standard for doctors has been to treat this kind of ongoing pain with opioids. Now, with opioid drug overdoses skyrocketing, doctors are making changes.
Early estimates show that opioids took 53,000 American lives in 2016, more than those killed in car accidents.
Opioids don’t just turn off your pain receptors. They also let your brain release more dopamine, which can help relieve stress and anxiety and make you happier.
But when you take an opioid permanently, you can build a tolerance to it, which means you need more and more to manage your pain and to feel good. Both the pain relief for chronic sufferers and the way it makes you feel can become addictive.
Not to mention, opioids can change how often certain neurons in your brain fire, which means that when you’re not on opioids, you actually get more anxious and unhappy until you take more, causing serious withdrawals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revised their guidelines to help doctors try other treatments first, and doctors are hard at work to find new ways to treat pain.
Waiting for Chronic Back Pain
So why is this part of my healthy journey? I have my own chronic back pain.
I’m lucky. I’ve never taken opioids for my back pain, so I’ve avoided those issues, but I do understand what it’s like to live with pain as a part of your daily life and why people would be willing to take opioids to stop it.
My father has had a slipped disc in his back my entire life. I’ve always known what back pain looks like. I also always thought it might happen to me. Not only can these issues be hereditary, but I also take after my father physically.
Combine that with the slouch of someone who hated always being the tallest in her class as a child and now sits in front of a computer all day, and I always suspected that back problems were coming for me.
My Chronic Back Pain
The pain started for me in college, when I was no longer playing sports or working out in P.E. every day. One year, I chose to live in the loop in Chicago instead of by my campus, so as part of my daily commute, I walked about an hour and a half. That was when I really started to throw out my back once in a while.
But it wasn’t until I worked at Starbucks after college that I really started to have serious problems regularly. Being on my feet all day and bending up and down with milk jugs all the time really started to take a toll on my back.
I’ll get building back pain on one side of my lower back. It can switch sides, and one side is usually worse than the other. And when it fully goes out, my knee on that side can sometimes buckle, which if I’m not ready for it, can actually knock me down. And sometimes it’s so bad that getting out of bed, getting up and down, or just falling asleep, is a challenge.
I’ve always known this pain might hit me one day, and when it started, I talked to my dad a lot about what was going on. My symptoms match his exactly.
Since I knew what the issue was from my father’s medical history, I wasn’t really worried about getting an official diagnosis.
I also already knew that I didn’t want to take opioids or painkillers long term. I’m one of those people who rarely takes even Tylenol. And when I had serious opioids after I had my wisdom teeth removed, they made me feel disoriented and nauseous.
My older brother had a serious workplace injury when I was in high school. He broke his pelvis and some of his spine. He’d seen a chiropractor, among many other specialists, when he was recovering, and he still sees one sometimes to cope with his own chronic pain.
I decided to explore that as a treatment option instead. My new chiropractor ran some X-rays and told me that my pelvis is tilted, which lets my disc slip back and forth instead of holding it in place.
Through a series of adjustments, he worked to bring my pelvis back in line, and brought me some real relief.
Unfortunately, I’ve done some state-hopping since then, and while I’m still in better shape than I used to be, I haven’t had time to find a new chiropractor yet.
Starting to Deal with Your Pain
So what can you do to tackle your chronic pain?
First and foremost, go see your doctor, especially if you’ve been injured or don’t have a family history of back issues. You might need surgery or other serious help.
Consider your treatment options. Surgery can be an option for many chronic back problems, but it has costs. It’s expensive and can cause its own set of pain problems. Opioids are highly addictive. Talk to your doctor about other options, like chiropractic treatment or acupuncture.
Talk to your insurance company. Insurance companies want to stop the opioid epidemic too, and more plans are covering alternative therapies like chiropractic visits than ever before.
Talk to your employer. If you have insurance through your employer, talk to them about making sure other therapies are covered on your group plan.
Work with your care team on a treatment plan to cope with and manage your pain.
Learning to Manage Pain
So how do I manage my chronic back pain without drugs?
Set expectations. Knowing I would probably grow up to develop chronic back pain means I’ve always been ready for it. Accepting that pain will be a part of my life helps me feel in control.
Find a treatment that helps. For me, this has been regular chiropractic adjustments that help relieve tension and keep my disc in place.
Get massages. I get the occasional massage to help relieve tension in the muscles in my back too. Many people with back pain get regular massages and swear by them.
Exercise and eat right. Even just a few extra pounds can put enormous stress on your spine if you already have back problems. And exercise can strengthen the muscles in your back. Focus on low-impact activities and strengthen your core if you’re already in pain.
And choose your cardio wisely. Running outdoors or on inclines can be really hard on your back and pelvis. Try running on a treadmill, walking, or biking instead.
Try yoga, pilates, or tai chi. Yes, these are technically forms of exercise, but they’re more than that too. A new study found that yoga can actually help relieve back pain itself, but recommends gentle poses. And the routine they used is free online. I find it highly relaxing and a nice way to stretch and wind down, and you can do it as often as you want.
Get plenty of sleep. You’d be surprised how sleep affects other parts of your life. When I’m sleep deprived, my back is much more likely to go out. And since I struggle to sleep once my back’s out, it makes for a long sleepless week in that situation.
Try little treatments and tricks. I ice my back and use heating pads. I also take over-the-counter pain meds before bed if my back feels like it will go out during the night. If my back’s already out, lying on the floor (if I have someone handy to help me get up later) can help. Putting a pillow between my knees can also help while I’m trying to fall asleep.
Meditate. Meditation can help you clear your mind and refocus, and mindfulness can be surprisingly helpful in overcoming pain. There are easy apps you can try to get started too.
Talk to someone or journal. Chronic pain can be emotional. You hurt. You can’t escape it, and it can feel hopeless. Talk to a close loved one, journal about what’s happening, or visit a therapist. It can help you blow off steam, lighten your mental load, feel heard, and document your pain’s progression.
Practice self-care. Stress and tension can tighten up everything in your back. Find ways to reduce and fight stress in your life. And find little pleasures that you can focus on each day, like your favorite coffee, trading back rubs with your significant other, or cuddling your pet.
Most importantly, get help when you need it. Never let your pain push you so far that you can’t handle it or you fall into depression. Talk to your doctor to keep your mind and body healthy, even in the face of chronic pain.
It’s been a little while since I mentioned a move. Since then, I’ve trotted across a few more states. (Am I actually insane? Perhaps.) After about 9 months in Indiana, my boyfriend and I just made the leap to the Seattle area in June. And moving has been taxing, as always.
I’d love to say that we planned perfectly to move across the country with ease and grace. Unfortunately, when military bases are involved, like they are for my boyfriend, there isn’t always time for perfect planning.
In the span of about 2 weeks, we:
Found an apartment
Packed our old apartment
Rented a truck
Drove across the country
Bought and assembled an apartment’s worth of new IKEA furniture
It was more the whirlwind version of moving.
Moving Your Whole Life Across the Country Recommendations
Get Help Finding an Apartment
Because we were moving to a state we’d never even visited, we did some research about areas we’d like to live, and then we hired a company to help find and show us apartments in those areas.
Between not having to rent a car on our visit and saving time before and during, it more than paid for the day of him driving us around to a bunch of apartments. And he picked the place we chose in the end.
I cannot recommend a service like this more when moving blindly. It made our lives so much easier.
We also loved our guide and are planning a double date with him and his girlfriend, so win-win-win.
Seriously Consider Movers
We did not seriously consider movers, and we are still a little sad about that. After loading the truck in Indiana, picking up my remaining belongings at home in Illinois, and driving over 12 hours a day for 3 days, my back was out when we got to Washington, and needless to say, it was a really rough way to unload a truck.
My mother was kind enough to come on this journey with us and help, but the 3 of us unloading our floppy king-size mattress alone was enough to make it worth hiring movers. I wish I had a video to prove to you that you should never accidentally bring this fate down upon yourselves, but alas, I do not, so instead, I like to think it looked a lot like this:
Combined with the floppiness of this:
And this small child’s linebacker skills:
Seriously, hire movers. We will next time.
Splurge and Take Extra Time Off
I only took off a few days for us to drive across the country, and then I hopped back online on Monday. I really wished I’d taken off the whole week.
Poor Matt assembled almost an entire apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture without much help from me while I was working. And it took a lot longer to have any functioning TVs or food in our fridge because I wasn’t available to help.
You will need more time than you thought you would to unpack and settle in a move across the country compared to a state or even just a few miles away. Trust me.
Plan to Grocery Shop
We didn’t plan time to grocery shop early on, and while our kitchen was the first thing unpacked, we couldn’t really use it for about 5 days. We’re lucky to have a grocery store, Starbucks, Panera, Chipotle, and more across the street, so we didn’t live off just fried food for days. But it was still not fun or good for us.
When you eat every meal out for 8 days in a row, you’ll understand that it’s expensive and exhausting. Plus, you’ll feel really gross by about day 3. So plan to be able to cook or at least throw together cereal or simple salads early.
Protect Your Skin and Hair
Even though our local water board just sent us a report about how great our water is, and I’d been living with extremely hard water in Indiana, better water might still wreak havoc on you.
I’ve had more breakouts in the last 2 months than I did at any point going through puberty or bouts of extreme all-night cramming in college. My normally happy combination skin has taken a full nose-dive into adult acne territory, and my boyfriend’s wasn’t doing too well at first either.
I know it sounds crazy, but Google it. I’m not the only one. Lots of people who have moved across the country or move regularly, like those in the military, have hit this issue.
There are many factors in a move that can take a toll. From the stress of the move, to different water, to adapting to a city without air conditioning and much more sweating than normal (no really, apartments pretty much never have air conditioning in Seattle), to a change in climate, they can all affect your skin. These changes can also be hard on your hair.
My skin’s finally starting to get used to the new digs, but you can save yourself by being prepared. Digging out my normal skincare routine and regularly sticking to it during 2 weeks of moving and unpacking wasn’t high on my list of priorities, and obviously, it should’ve been.
If you don’t take care of yourself during the move, you will regret it later. Wash your face in the morning and before bed, and be prepared to adapt your old routines. You might need a new lotion or conditioner for suddenly dry skin or hair or to change your old products while your skin and hair adapt.
Work on Patience and Understanding
While you’re moving, it’s extremely high stress, and it opens the door to fighting. My mom and I already have the tendency to bicker, but my boyfriend and I are usually very level-headed.
In a twist of fate, my mom and I did a pretty great job, and the bickering mostly bubbled up with my boyfriend, probably partially because we were trying to make serious life decisions on barely any sleep while being completely physically exhausted, all with the added bonus of an extra witness there to see us duke it out.
I’ve had some not-great relationships in the past, which at times made it feel like I had a free pass to be mean if an argument required it. But my current boyfriend is wonderful and one of my oldest friends, and he doesn’t deserve that. As a result, I’ve really had to work on my patience and understanding in the middle of arguments.
One of the best rules I can recommend is don’t fight while you’re exhausted, hungry, or triggered by something else, like work. But when you’re exhausted, hungry, and triggered by moving, which you’re doing all of together, some fights have to bubble up. It’s fate.
Tips to Be More Patient for a Fair Fight
What you can do is be ready. Try to practice patience with some deep breaths, some gratitude for the other person, and maybe just by embracing the uncomfortableness of what’s going on together.
Then, when you can’t avoid that fight, fight fair:
Recognize the other person’s concerns and feelings.
Listen, listen, listen.
Never mix meanness for the sake of meanness or other issues in your relationship into an argument they don’t belong in.
Don’t say things like ultimatums you don’t mean. If what you’re arguing over isn’t a relationship deal breaker, don’t taunt that it is in the heat of the moment.
Know your own and each other’s limits. My boyfriend likes to talk things out right away. I like time to cool off so I don’t lash out. We both know that about each other and try to make arguing work for both of us, even when that’s hard to do.
Pick your battles carefully and get comfortable with compromise. Instead of arguing over a soap dispenser, wait and find one you agree on because it’s just a soap dispenser. If you don’t really care what color that side table is, but your partner really cares, give them the win. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did after the 800th snap decision you have to make in the middle of IKEA.
Always bring it back to a place of love and respect, even while you’re arguing. Never forget that you’re partners in this, even if (when) they’re driving you crazy.
Forgive easily. Moving is too stressful to hold every meltdown against the other person, and with a huge move, there will definitely be some meltdowns.
Take Time to Relax
Luckily for us, we got our big move in right before a big vacation to Hawaii, so we had a built-in break about a month after the move.
Hawaii was gorgeous, and having never been that close to the equator before, a great reminder of the value of sunscreen.
But you should plan time to explore your new home or get away if you need to, even if it’s only for a date night, a weekend, or a massage.
And don’t beat yourself up over the occasional splurge during this time. If there were ever a time to have some real ice cream or a steak, it’s when you’ve just picked up your whole life and dropped it nearly 5,000 miles away.
And for fun, because, Hawaii…
Appreciate Your New Home
After about a month of craziness, hopefully your new home will be in decent shape. At which point, you need to take a step back and give yourselves a big pat on the back.
This will be the second time I’ve moved across the country blindly, once with nothing but a couple suitcases, and this time with everything I own. It’s scary, and stressful, and so worth it. Don’t forget to appreciate what you’ve built.
I’m finally taking a second to admire my gorgeous apartment in a brand-new building, my wonderful puppies, our gorgeous surroundings, my boyfriend who calmly spent about 10 hours in an IKEA with my mom and I and built like 15 pieces of furniture, and the awesome job that let me move across the country and keep working for them remotely, saving me from a frantic job search at the same time. #Blessed, am I right?
And I live about 25 minutes away from this. Seriously, how can you stay burnt out living anywhere this gorgeous!
The end of April and beginning of May might be the craziest month-long stretch I’ve ever planned for myself. I will be battling traveling stress each week with almost no downtime in between.
First, I spent a weekend with loved ones around Indy, going to the zoo and shopping. Then, my mom, sister-in-law, and I went on a big weekend trip to New York City to see a Broadway show. The next weekend, I’m headed to Chicago to visit some old friends. The 2 weekends after that, I’m driving home for events, and then the weekend after that, I’m off to Seattle.
No matter what, traveling is stressful, so to get through it, I’m trying to plan ahead, stay on top of things, make the healthiest decisions I can on the go, and enjoy the moments of fun that are the whole point of traveling in the first place.
Planning Ahead to Avoid Traveling Stress
While tickets and such have been booked ahead of time, the planning never ends there.
First, I spring-cleaned my apartment like crazy so that it could survive the coming month without looking like a wasteland.
I pulled tons of great tips to make this list from the helpful resources we shared in our Spring Cleaning for National Cleaning Week post, like using rubber gloves to wipe dog hair off my furniture, freshening up my garbage disposal, and more.
Organize, Organize, Organize
I’ve been making a list of all the things I need to do before each trip, so I don’t do something silly and forgetful, like making myself late by forgetting to put gas in my car before driving to the airport.
And this list doesn’t just include the things I need to pack but also the things I need to do around the house and the errands I need to run first.
This helps me stay on track and not forget all the little things that have to be pulled together at the last minute.
I try to pack as much as I can ahead. The key to-do’s I can mark off in advance:
Buy or organize travel liquids if I’m flying.
Check the weather forecast.
Plan versatile outfits, like things that can mix and match and fit the weather and planned activities, including shoes because I get blisters easily.
Organize or switch to a purse better for travel.
Never forget essentials, like headphones, a book, sunscreen, bandaids, gas in the car, and meds.
Plan driving times and routes.
Then, at the last minute, I can just add in the things I’m still using, like my makeup bag, toothbrush, and phone charger, and avoid all that last-minute packing stress.
Planning for Work
Another important key to planning ahead is making sure work is ready for me to be completely unavailable.
Usually that just means talking to my co-workers in advance and making sure anything that takes place on the weekends, like social media for the next week, is done early.
One of the easiest ways to ruin your vacation is to have to drop everything for work, so make sure you’ve talked to your co-workers and set boundaries for when you’ll be available.
Then, stick to those boundaries because vacations are an important part of avoiding burnout. If you’re only going to check email once a day, stick to that and do it at a time when it won’t ruin your day.
Staying on Top of Things to Avoid Traveling Stress
No matter how much planning you do, it can all fall apart while you’re there if you focused on the wrong thing.
I like to make plans for each day with loose free time around them. You never want to have to be too many places in one day, so one meal with reservations and one event or activity that requires tickets in advance per day is probably plenty. You can munch or discover something new when you’re actually hungry the rest of the time, which can help you avoid overeating on a trip. And you’ll have more time to focus on something you love instead of rushing off to your next activity.
I also like to have extra time planned in so that if I’m exhausted, I can take a nap, shower after a hot outdoor activity, or simply enjoy downtime by watching a movie or grabbing an appetizer with my loved ones.
Get Your Bearings
Another key can be knowing your location and how to get around. I’ve lived in New York and Chicago, so I know my way around the neighborhoods and how the subways work, and pulling up a location on my phone is more than enough for me to find my way in either place.
However, I’ve never been to Seattle, so looking at maps and familiarizing myself with what’s where will be a much more important part of planning that trip so I don’t end up lost when I get there.
Identify what you need to focus on in preparation for each trip for a smooth journey to avoid hiccups in the moment.
Start the Day Off Right
Each morning of your trip, it’s a good idea to review your plans with everyone. Not only will it put you all on the same page, but it will help you remember which important tickets, confirmation numbers, or reservation details you need to bring along that day for your planned activities.
Making Healthy Choices to Avoid Traveling Stress
Traveling stress skyrockets for me when I feel guilty about it, so I’m trying to make healthy choices wherever I go.
A few weeks ago, I bought a Ringly ring. Ringly is a fitness tracker that syncs to your phone but looks like jewelry. I’d been wanting a tracker for a while, and the design of these adorable pieces made me finally get on board.
You charge it in a ring box and manage it from an app on your phone, and no one would ever know from looking at it that it’s a tracker.
Because of this new tracker, I can see how much walking I’m doing each weekend. The weekend in Indy, I walked 9.2 miles. And in NYC, we planned in time to walk the High Line and the bottom half of Central Park. We ended up walking 25.5 miles total!
I also try to choose healthier food choices most of the time without sacrificing the experience.
Enjoying the Moment to Avoid Traveling Stress
Finally, the stress-busting key for me is enjoying the fun parts of traveling. Those moments have to outweigh the stress, or it’s not worth it!
In NYC, we:
Ate at Bobby Flay’s Gato
Saw the new show Amélie
Spent a day at Chelsea Market
Walked the High Line
Had a ball at Waitress, including the perfect-serving-size, tiny Key Lime and Marshmallow Pies at intermission (And they raised $20,000 dollars in a little auction at the end of the show for charity!)
Indulged in the special Easter brunch menu at Tom Colicchio’s Craft
Explored Central Park
With more crazy weekends ahead of me, I hope my planning helps me stay sane!
Tips for Your Travels
If you need more tips to make it through your next trip and traveling stress, these can help:
My grandparents had a Chihuahua that lived to be 20 years old. Suzy had her own knitted sweaters to wear when she went outside. Every night, Grandma cooked and cut up liver in tiny, bite-sized pieces for Suzy’s dinner.
I’m not sure what the life expectancy and living arrangements for most dogs were in the 1950s and 1960s, but I would wager that Suzy’s life was particularly plush for that era. When I came along in 1968, my parents gave me the middle name of Sue. I often wondered if this was a happy coincidence or a tribute to that beloved Chihuahua.
Today, I have a yellow Labrador retriever puppy named Harvey. Grandpa’s name was Harvey. Touché.
Americans love their pets. Take a stroll through your local big-box pet supplies chain, and the number of things a person can buy for their animals will amaze you. Strollers, raincoats, probiotics, gluten-free and vegan dog food, and even memory foam mattresses. Within just a few miles of my house, Harvey can go to a doggy day camp, swim at an indoor pool just for pooches, and later have his hair and nails done at the pet spa.
Your pet pampers you in different ways. Owning a pet lowers stress, reduces blood pressure, and raises mental sharpness. A study from the University of Missouri-Columbia showed that petting a dog for 15 minutes releases the feel-good hormones serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, while also lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
Pets can open up a lonely world and get you out of bed in the morning. Walking a dog (or a cat, if you are particularly brave and the cat is extremely cooperative) is good exercise. Those of us with an empty nest find a new sense of purpose. And nurturing a beloved animal gives us unconditional love in return.
An older person with a pet companion can be a heartwarming love match. I reached out to Stacey Teager, from the Quad City Animal Welfare Center, for some advice for those who are looking to add a pet to their home in later years.
Make sure your pet gets regular checkups and immunizations. Have your animal spayed or neutered.
Never give your pet “people” medications. Always consult a veterinarian before medicating your pet.
Have a plan in place with your family or close friends for caring for your pet should you become sick and need to be hospitalized or stay in a nursing facility.
Match your pet with your physical capabilities. My 50-pound Labrador retriever puppy can drag my mother down the sidewalk. This is dangerous for both her and the dog. A quieter, smaller animal is a better choice for her to walk around the neighborhood.
Despite my grandmother’s loving intentions, don’t feed your pet table scraps or human food. Animals can get overweight and unhealthy with just a few added ounces. If you like to bake, there are lots of recipes for animal treats that use ingredients found in your pantry.
Lora Felger is a community and broker liaison at Health Alliance. She is the mother of 2 terrific boys, a world traveler, and a major Iowa State Cyclones fan.