The Holidays Are Challenging for People With Chronic Pain—Here Are 6 Tips for Getting Through

The holidays can be a stressful time for many people. Between trying to get gifts for everyone on your list, running to parties, and hosting people, it can be a lot for anyone to take. Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult time for people who struggle with chronic pain.

“We usually get a lot of phone calls from patients during the holidays,” says Medhat Mikhael, MD, pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “They have flare-ups of symptoms, which tend to happen during the winter anyway. The stress of the holidays and everything that comes with it makes it an especially tough time for them.”

Krishna Shah, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology–interventional pain medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says that his office “absolutely” gets more calls from patients around the holidays. “There is a huge uptick in calls, as patients would like injections or medications to help manage their pain prior to traveling for family,” he explains.

If you struggle with chronic pain, it’s more than understandable to want to make the holiday season as seamless—and comfortable—as possible for you. Here’s what pain management experts recommend.

1. Continue to do what works

The holidays can shake up your schedule, but doctors say a  consistent treatment plan is crucial. “Patients should remember to continue with what works for them during other parts of the year,” says Akshay Goyal, MD, assistant professor of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

That can mean taking your medication on time to engaging in lifestyle factors that tend to work for you. “It’s important to get enough sleep, limit alcohol, and continue to exercise regularly,” Dr. Shah says. “These things are often not prioritized when we get busy, but making time for yourself with go a long way.”

2. Plan ahead

Sure, you have your to-do list, but Dr. Mikhael suggests making one for your health, too. “We always tell patients to get ahead of the game,” he says. That can include scheduling an appointment with your physical therapist or chiropractor to help you get treatment ahead of time, or checking in with your doctor about what you should do if you start to experience a flare. “Get ahead of everything, so by the time the holiday hits, you’ll feel much better and able to meet the demand,” Dr. Mikhael says.

3. Keep tabs on your stress level

The holidays can send stress from all angles. “When patients are surrounded constantly by celebratory displays, these may paradoxically serve as reminders of their unremitting pain issues,” Dr. Goyal says. “This catastrophizing mindset can snowball into a state in which pain patients may experience a very real exacerbation of their symptoms.”

There are also physical stresses to be aware of, like staying up later than usual and being on your feet more. “Holiday expectations can lead patients to push past their capabilities,” Dr. Goyal says, adding that holiday shopping is physically demanding. He recommends that you “try not to increase stress levels,” whether it’s coming from your family, personal life, or finances.

4. Be mindful of your dietary habits

The holidays are all about delicious food and treats, but Dr. Mikhael recommends not deviating from your normal routine too much. “Over-consuming things like sodium can aggravate pain and make it much worse,” Dr. Mikheal says. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults limit how much sodium they have to less than 2,300 milligrams per day (about one teaspoon of table salt), but talk to your doctor about your individual needs.

5. Be honest with your loved ones about how you’re feeling

Your friends and family won’t automatically know about your limitations, which is why Dr. Mikhael says it’s “extremely important” to speak up. “Be upfront and very honest about your abilities, along with what your doctors allow you to do and not do,” he says.

Dr. Goyal agrees. “Communication is key,” he says. “The important thing is to not overdo it, even though your heart is in the right place.”

6. Don’t be afraid to call your doctor

Even with careful planning, there’s still a chance you could end up feeling less than amazing during the holidays. This isn’t anyone’s fault—it’s simply part of living with a chronic condition.

“If anything feels abnormal, reach out to your doctor,” Dr. Shah says. “We are here to help you.” Just don’t wait. “The sooner you reach out to your physician, the better,” Dr. Goyal says. “It is always easier for the physician to treat the pain as early in the disease process as possible, whether that is with a minimally invasive intervention or modified medication regimen.”


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