The Benefits of Staying Engaged in Life Despite Chronic Pain

What is this research about?

Many people experience chronic pain along with conditions like multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury. Chronic pain is pain that lasts a long time.  It often doesn’t go away with medications. It can also get in the way of doing things like working, socializing and enjoying hobbies. We now know that people’s thoughts and reactions to their pain can have a strong impact on how much the pain affects them. Our researchers looked at one of these factors -- a factor called “pain acceptance”. Pain acceptance involves being OK with experiencing pain and continuing to do things we enjoy and care about in spite of the pain. In our research, we wanted to find out how pain acceptance might affect people’s lives and well-being over time.

What did the researchers do?

We sent two surveys to about 400 people who had either muscular dystrophy (MD), multiple sclerosis (MS), post-polio syndrome (PPS), or spinal cord injury (SCI) and said they had chronic pain. We sent the two surveys about three years apart. On the first survey, we asked questions about pain acceptance, such as “I am getting on with the business of living regardless of my pain”. Then, on both surveys, we asked people how bad their pain was, how much it got in the way of their lives and activities, how well they could do physical tasks, and questions about any problems with mood or sleep. We looked at how the participants’ answers to these questions changed over the three years, and if they were related to how much they accepted their pain in the first survey.

What did the researchers find?

The people who told us that they accepted their pain more at the first survey told us that they felt better over time. Their pain was less likely to get worse, they had more improvements in mood and sleep quality, and they reported more improvements in pain interference. 

How can you use this research?

If you have chronic pain, staying involved in activities despite pain may help you feel better over time. Here are some ways to manage your pain and stay active:

  • Focus on doing activities that make you happy such as spending time with family and friends, volunteering in your community, or making art or music. If it’s difficult to do everything that you used to do, focus more on a few activities that you really enjoy and give your life meaning.
  • Exercise regularly.  Even gentle exercise or stretching, can help manage pain and improve your physical abilities. If you aren’t currently exercising, talk to your healthcare provider or a physical therapist about starting an exercise program.
  • Relaxation and meditation can help make pain feel more manageable. In particular, mindfulness meditation involves focusing your attention on the present moment and becoming more aware of your thoughts and reactions to pain. Learn more about mindfulness meditation here.

Things you should know:

  • Staying involved and engaged in life despite pain can improve your well-being over time.
  • Happiness is an important part of living well with chronic pain. To learn more, check out our recent paper on the role of happiness in living with chronic pain.

Original Research Article:

Jensen MP, Smith AE, Alschuler KN, Gillanders DT, Amtmann D, Molton IR. The role of pain acceptance on function in individuals with disabilities: A longitudinal study. Pain. 2015; [Sept 12.]

About the Author:

Mark Jensen, PhD is the lead investigator of the RRTC's longitudinal survey project and the Vice Chair of Research at the University of Washington's Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.