Living with Chronic Pain

Activity Pacing Is a Valuable Pain Management Tool


Chronic pain varies in duration and intensity. It often ebbs and flows, and for some individuals, it can ease for a time. When pain levels are lower than usual, it is tempting to accomplish as much as possible, making up for the times when pain makes physical activity difficult or impossible.

Accomplishing tasks on a to-do list on low-pain days helps improve mood. Being active and busy releases adrenaline, which combats feelings of depression. However, pain can become more severe or debilitating after completing tasks and activities. Too much activity can fatigue the body and mind, which can exacerbate pain symptoms and increase pain levels. Rest is then required until pain levels are reduced. This is often a vicious cycle. Over time, pain levels may continue to increase, and remission periods may become less frequent. A lack of balance between rest and activity can aggravate physical and emotional symptoms.

What is activity pacing?

Activity pacing is a valuable pain management tool that attempts to balance activity and rest in order to increase function and participation in meaningful activities. Breaking the habit of “overdoing it” when pain levels are low helps reduce the risk of rebound pain. Activity pacing involves resting even when pain levels are reduced, which allows for more consistent levels of activity over time.

There are five defining attributes of activity pacing:

  1. Action
    Activity pacing involves balancing activity and rest.
  2. Time
    Successful activity pacing does not happen immediately. The best balance is achieved and maintained over time.
  3. Balance
    Activity and rest need to be balanced. However, they do not need to be split 50/50. Time spent on activity and rest should be individualized for optimal function.
  4. Learning
    Activity pacing is a learned skill. It takes effort and time to develop the skill.
  5. Self-management
    Since activity pacing is individualized, it is up to each individual to start the process, monitor progress and make changes as needed.

Tips for activity pacing

  • Schedule time for breaks
    Use a timer to schedule time for breaks during work or activities, even when pain levels are low. Get up and stretch or take a moment to breathe. This will help prevent fatigue and reduce rebound pain.
  • Break large tasks into smaller ones
    Instead of trying to accomplish a task in one sitting or in one day, break it up into smaller tasks that can be completed over time. This can help reduce stress.
  • Make time to rest and relax on a daily basis
    Rest and relaxation should be a priority. Consistent self-care can lower stress levels and reduce or help prevent pain.
  • Accept setbacks
    Activity pacing is not a cure for chronic pain; setbacks will likely happen. Sometimes, overexertion and rebound pain occur. The best way to handle a setback is to analyze the situation and, if possible, make changes for the future. Activity pacing is an ongoing process.

Although learning and practicing activity pacing takes time and effort, it can be extremely beneficial for individuals with chronic pain.

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