Physicians, public health officials, politicians, and journalists can all argue about when and if we are officially living in a post-COVID-19 world. But for people in pain, the lifting of mask mandates and the availability of vaccinations didn’t alter the fact that pain persists.
The pain didn’t go away during the COVID-19 pandemic and may have gotten worse. That’s because the pandemic fundamentally altered how pain patients got healthcare and treatment, changed how pain patients lived their ordinary lives, and introduced a whole new form of anxiety for all of us—anxiety we must learn to manage.
As things slowly get back to normal in our post-COVID-19 lives, there are seven important things people with pain can do to recover and thrive.
1. Get a plan together to get fit again. According to a study from Harvard Medical School, 10% of Americans gained more than 12.5 pounds during the pandemic. Since people are often less than honest about their weight, it is probably more than that. In fact, 39% of people Harvard surveyed admitted to some degree of weight gain.1
If you need to lose weight, you should get serious about it. It does not matter when you acquired the extra weight. Obesity is associated with many illnesses and the extra stress it puts on joints makes arthritis much more painful.
Obesity is also associated with inflammation, making painful conditions more painful. We know that obesity led to worse outcomes with COVID-19 and for people living in pain, obesity makes the pain worse.
2. Incorporate exercise into your post-pandemic life. Even the most disciplined exercise fanatics found their exercise routines disrupted when the pandemic forced gyms and recreation centers to close.
Now, post-COVID-19, they’re open again. Plus, there are a lot of great opportunities to exercise outdoors, even if it’s just walking around the block. Your exercise regimen may have to be modified to help you work out around your painful condition, but it’s highly beneficial for most pain patients.
Start easy, go slowly, and don’t quit. It’s much more beneficial to fight pain by exercising consistently and regularly (even if it’s just a little) than to exercise a lot one day and then not exercise at all for the rest of the week.
3. Get enough Vitamin D. The pandemic taught healthcare professionals just how powerful vitamin D can be. People who lacked sufficient vitamin D were more likely to contract COVID-19 and have worse outcomes once they got it than people who got enough vitamin D every day.2
Beyond that, vitamin D is associated with a strong immune system. You can take it every day as a supplement, but you can also get it in natural sunlight and certain foods (fresh fish, eggs, mushrooms, fortified milk, and others).
4. Add relaxation techniques to your daily routine. Not only did we just come through a viral pandemic, but we also had a parallel pandemic of worry, anxiety, stress, and fearfulness. It revved up our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which don’t know the difference between physical danger and psychological fear.
Your heart may race, your muscles tense, and your breathing becomes shallow. While our stress response is good for survival, such as if a bear was chasing us, humans aren’t meant to live in a chronic state of fearfulness. Anxiety puts tremendous stress on your body, feeds chronic inflammation, and depresses your immune system.
The best way to fight back is to “force” yourself to relax your body multiple times a day by doing yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or visualization.
5. Find joy in your post-pandemic life. It’s easy to lose your sense of happiness during a pandemic and most people with chronic pain struggle even in the best of times to experience moments of joy and peace. Now is the time to rejoin your family and friends if the pandemic has kept you apart.
Finding joy isn’t about a big moment, it’s about savoring all the little things that give you pleasure, such as sitting outdoors to have your morning coffee, listening to music, calling up an old friend, shopping, or spending time with a grandchild. Being happy helps combat anxiety and boosts your immune system. No one can be happy every waking minute, but you need to find those moments where you can and enjoy them.
6. See your healthcare team. During the pandemic, many people relied on telemedicine to contact their physicians. These technical innovations were important, but it is time now to start making face-to-face contact with your physician(s) again. If you have put off treatments, routine physicals, dental appointments, or other types of care, get back to them.
7. Take care of your pain. For people with muscle and joint pain, I recommend topical products. Your doctor may prescribe pain relievers or advise you on what over-the-counter medications you should take. Massage, exercise, cold packs, or heating pads can all help. Don’t neglect your pain. Interrupt pain signals when you can by getting relief.
When getting pain relief, don’t expect one thing to provide 100% pain control. It’s a numbers game. Exercise may cut your pain in half, but not relieve it completely. Keep exercising but add some other things that may reduce your pain even more, such as regular massages or topical products. Doctors sometimes prescribe multiple drugs to help with one problem and pain is the same way—you may have to do several pain-relieving techniques at once to get relief.
Do not be discouraged, even if the COVID-19 pandemic may have set you back a bit. People who fight pain daily are warriors. You are tough, resilient, heroic people.
Let me encourage you to get back to basics and reclaim your life. The pandemic may have been difficult for you, but it likely taught you to value your friends and family, your community, and simple pleasures. All of this will help you thrive in your post-pandemic life!
1. Frates E. Did we really gain weight during the pandemic? Staying Healthy 2021 [cited 2022 April 22]; Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/did-we-really-gain-weight-during-the-pandemic-202110052606
2. Demir M, Demir F, Aygun H. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with COVID-19 positivity and severity of the disease. J Med Virol 2021 May;93(5):2992-99.