Journaling And Pain Relief

'Exactly How Can It Help You?'

The Short Answer…

Journaling (or keeping a written record) will show you both what triggers your pain and what delivers pain relief (as well as to what level).

This can then help you both cope mentally with chronic pain and achieve the best combination of pain relief possible for you. In this article, we look at why…and how… does journaling and pain relief work.

Photo of a woman writing in her journal to understand her pain

Why Does Journaling And Pain Relief Work?

Pain is subjective. That is a fact.

What affects you to one level will now affect someone else in the same way or by the same amount.

So is pain relief. Just because something works for someone else (or even 95% of people) is no guarantee it will work for you.

So what is the connection, why does journaling seem to have a real role to play in pain management and relief?

Monitoring Your Symptoms…

To put it simply, you will often see ‘keeping a journal’ as a key piece of advice to managing with any form of chronic pain (pain that has lasted for more than three months).

This is because the journal can then be used to monitor your highly personal response to a range of potential pain stimuli/ situations.

For example, if your journal shows that 48hrs after attending a party, your chronic back pain spiked (got dramatically more painful), then you may have a pattern.

If looking back through your journal you see that the previous late night party you attended was three months ago and you also saw a spike in your pain as was also the case for the party before that (a further 7 months previous) and you a pattern that can be acted upon.

You can then say with reasonable certainty, that after the next late night party you go to, you will be in a lot of back pain approximately 24-48 hours later.

This gives you four key options –

  1. You have the option (knowing now what it is likely to do to you) to miss the party altogether.
  2. You could attend the party but leave early, to see if that affects the pain you feel.
  3. You could have a day beforehand of doing nothing, so your back is more rested come the party and the pain response may not be so bad
  4. You could take a whole range of pain killing steps the morning immediately after the party, before your pain gets worse to try and alleviate the spike.

This could include having a hot bath followed by an ice pack on your back (hot and cold therapy), getting a massage, arranging some sort of alternative therapy that has worked in the past or even taken pain killers in advance to try and avert the pain crash.

The act of journaling has then given you two major benefits…

  • When you recognise what might trigger increases in your pain, you can take preventative steps to stop the pain coming
  • By managing the process, you are effectively taking control of your pain management which is both empowering and has been shown to have real benefits for the mindset of chronic pain sufferers.
An Additional Benefit…

One further benefit for your mindset is that by keeping a journal you are effectively breaking down the huge and scary problem of chronic pain management for the rest of your life into much smaller, manageable challenges.

Each day, week or month is a challenge to use what previous periods have taught you to reduce your current pain.

Similar to the concept of cognitive behavioural therapy (link here), changing the approach will improve your mindset which in turn improves your emotions. This then makes your brain expect to see less pain in a self-fulfilling prophecy – suddenly it does!

A photo of a woman writing on a calendar to see where her likely days of pain might be.

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How To Apply Journaling And Pain Relief

As you may have guessed, the simplest way to start journaling is literally to just start today.

You want to begin by recording each day how you feel in the morning, afternoon and evening as well as how well you slept that night.

Record important events such as activities you did (including housework) and anything that happened to you that might have caused stress or excitement. This can be good or bad.

Record what you’ve eaten and drunk for the day. Even something as simple as forgetting to drink water one day can result in considerable extra pain on the next.

Then every time you feel an exacerbation (worsening) of your pain, write it down.

As soon as you are feeling better go back to it and check through the events leading up to your pain flare. Try to find patterns and, when you do, go back further in your records to the last few times you did or encountered a similar situation.

Was it the same result for your pain levels. If so, then you may have a pattern that you can capitalise upon, either by avoiding or taking preventative steps.

But journaling and pain relief is not just a relationship for avoiding pain flares – it is also highly effective in helping find the right combination of pain relief.

I’ve written for various journals about how pain relief is not an option A or option B type of problem. There are many options available and some will work for you personally but not for other people and vice versa.

The only way to be sure which is better is to try quite a few and keep a record of what works and how effective on a pain scale of 1-10, each one was.

A drawing of a doctor holding a board with 'pain management' written across it.'

Remembering that what works for one person, may not work for someone else, you should end up a number of items that worked for you. Some of these will be able to work in combination.

So while you might not be able to take a combination of drugs, even over-the-counter ones (and do not even try it without first consulting your doctor), you may be able to enjoy a fortnightly massage, use a prescribed painkiller and put a TENS machine on your painful back of an evening, followed by ice every morning.

This may be the best combination for you – or it may be something completely different.

The take away point here is that pain is not black and white and the solutions for pain control are not just option A OR option B (it could be A,C and E).

But the only way you truly discover what works for you is to consult your doctor, try various options and keep a journal. Your journal may even help you when seeing a doctor – to offer them a much better picture of your symptoms, what affects your pain and how much it varies.

Journaling And Pain Relief – Providing Distance.

The final benefit that journaling and pain relief can provide is distance. In a clinical study by Utley & Garza, a teenagers journal about their struggles is read out and a discussion instigated on how the act of putting something on paper helps to objectify this.

Unfortunately, this study was very much about the effects of journaling on mental health, but the lessons learnt – that journaling can improve objectification still hold true for chronic pain management as well.

The Final Word –

Journaling and pain relief can be an essential partnership if done with sincerity and routine.

Recording all your actions, and the effects they have on pain – whether it be stressful events and pain flare ups or various therapies and their impact on pain relief, can prove extremely beneficial.

Not only can you learn to recognise what triggers your personal pain and take preventative steps, but you can form a back-up opinion on what can improve the pain relief you need.

Add to this the benefits for your mental health of being able to break down a terrifying challenge like chronic pain management in to smaller steps and the benefits of distancing yourself just a little bit from your problem, and it’s a real win-win.

Indeed it’s surprising, given how many ‘guides’ on managing chronic pain whether from arthritis or just permanent back/ knee pain etc that more research hasn’t been done in to this form of therapy.

Given the benefits and complete lack of side effects, it something that could be a massive help and is probably never a bad thing to do.

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References –

1. Allison Utley & Yvonne Garza. (March 2011). The Therapeutic Use of Journaling With Adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health

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