How to Cope With Chronic Pain While in Recovery

We all feel pain. Both physical pain and emotional pain. For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on physical pain. Every one of us has felt physical pain. You fall of your bike and injure your leg, you feel pain. You sprain your ankle playing basketball, you feel pain. You break your leg in nine places while skiing down Mt. Hood because you want to go as fast as possible for the quick adrenaline rush, leaving you in a cast for a few months as opposed to the normal 6 weeks, you feel pain.  

Chronic pain is different than normal pain in that it is (like the name suggests) chronic, meaning it lasts a very long time. Lots of people enter addiction due to physical pain, since the stronger pain medication doctors prescribe can be very addictive. If you have chronic pain and the inclination for addiction, that’s a recipe for an addiction to anything that can relieve the pain or make you forget about it. 

But those in recovery who suffer from chronic pain are far from alone. I’ve seen people in meetings talk about their chronic pain and how it’s affected their addiction. I’ve also heard them talk about how they managed to stay in recovery despite their chronic pain. In this article, we’ll discuss ways people with chronic pain can stay in recovery.  

What is Chronic Pain?

All of us suffer physical pain, but in some people, the physical pain can last for weeks to years. Chronic pain is exactly what it sounds like, it is a persistent pain that can last from weeks to months to years. If you have chronic pain, you’re not alone. In the US, chronic pain is one of the most common reasons for adults to seek medical care. According to the CDC, around 1 in 5 adults in the US suffer from chronic pain. 

This doesn’t mean all people with chronic pain are in constant, never-ending pain. The pain can come and go in waves or be there all the time the point is that it is present and real. This has obvious effects on physical and mental health. In terms of physical health, it limits the amount of physical activity you are able to do, which itself is bad for you because of that whole, exercise being critical for health thing.  

You don’t need to be a doctor or an expert on addiction to see how chronic pain can exacerbate addiction. Lots of the stronger pain medications that can be prescribed are addictive, which is dangers for someone who is predisposed to addiction. On top of that, people with chronic pain may start to depend on their drug of choice to take the pain away, or on alcohol to make them forget about/ignore the pain.

pain management for patients with a substance abuse history


Chronic Pain is Not One Size Fits All 

Chronic pain is a very broad term, but there are several different types of chronic pain, each with its own unique effects. Types of chronic pain and persistent pain include:  

  • Chronic primary pain – Pain that lasts longer than three months and is associated with significant emotional distress or functional disability and that cannot be explained by another chronic condition. 
  • Chronic posttraumatic pain – Chronic pain that develops or increases in intensity after a surgery or tissue injury and persists beyond the healing process 
  • Chronic neuropathic pain – Shooting or burning pain that persists for a long period of time 
  • Chronic headache and orofacial pain – Chronic pain in the head or neck that results from an injury or surgical procedure 
  • Chronic visceral pain – Pain focused in the abdominal or pelvic region 
  • Chronic musculoskeletal pain – Chronic pain affecting bones, joints, ligaments, tendons or muscles 
  • Chronic cancer pain – Chronic pain caused by cancer 


pain management for recovering addicts


The Link Between Addiction and Chronic Pain 

As mentioned above, addiction and chronic pain often go hand-in-hand. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies suggest that up to one third of people who take opioids to handle chronic pain misuse them and over 10 percent become addicted.  

The reason for this is pretty easy to understand. When you have chronic pain, oftentimes you get prescribed medication that can be addictive. If your mind is wired like an addict/alcoholic, that can be like opening Pandora’s Box or the Ark of the Covenant (with less face melting). Drinking/using helps you not feel the physical pain, or simply forget about it.  



Pain Management Tips in Recovery 

If you’re an addict/alcoholic and have chronic pain, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to handle pain in recovery. I’ve been in the program for several years now and I’ve seen several people who have chronic pain come into the rooms. I’ve also seen several people with chronic pain get lots of sober time. Ways to handle chronic pain in recovery include: 


Physical Therapy 

If you have severe, long-lasting chronic pain this is a great resource. Physical therapy can help you manage pain and improve movement (which can help you with some of the other things on this list). I’ve been through physical therapy before, not for chronic pain but for the “leg broken in nine places” injury I mentioned in the first paragraph (yes, those oddly specific examples of pain were personal experience). I’m an avid long-distance runner now, so I’d say the physical therapy worked pretty well. It can work for you too.  



Speaking of improved movement, exercise can help with chronic pain (among other things). Exercise can mean anything from running, biking, swimming, walking, hiking or lifting weights. As long as it gets you moving, it can be good for you.  



Speaking of exercise, yoga can help you with both exercise, flexibility, and meditation. There’s a reason yoga is a common exercise and a reason lots of people in recovery do yoga. It ca be done alone, in a group, or in a group in a superheated room. Portland has several options for yoga classes, including one exclusively for people in recovery.  



Diet is a very important part of physical health. A healthy, balanced diet can help anyone, including people with chronic pain. Look for reliable resources to craft a diet for yourself that can help with your physical health. When you eat better, you start to feel better.  



Acupuncture is an ancient method of pain relief that many people say works. While it is not medical science, lots of people have felt good effects afterwards.  


Get Enough Sleep 

Sleep is always important for physical and mental health. Getting a good night’s sleep can make you think more clearly and give you more energy, which is especially beneficial for people who are struggling with chronic pain.  


Mindfulness Meditation 

Mindfulness meditation is a meditation practice that centers around slowing your mind down and letting go of negativity, helping you stay calm and stay right sized. As addicts/alcoholics our brains can run at 1,000 miles a minute, making mindfulness meditation even more beneficial. This can either be guided (via another person or a video/speaker) or done alone.  

There are also meditation-centered meetings, including: 

Meditation meetings in the Portland Metro Area 

Buddhist Recovery Meetings 

Online AA Meditation – AA Intergroup 



Chronic pain can have harmful effects on your mental health. Add in addiction, and you have a case where seeking counseling can be very beneficial. Your mental health is essential for your physical health and both mental and physical health are important for recovery. 


Meetings and Work with a Sponsor 

You’ll notice this appears on a lot of these articles as a way to handle [insert problem here] in recovery. There’s a reason for that. Meetings are a place where you can be surrounded by people who understand the crazy way your brain is wired and build a community of sober friends. A sponsor is someone who guides you through the steps and someone you can always reach out to if you are feeling an urge to drink/use.  

In both settings, meetings and sponsor work, you can be honest about your struggles with chronic pain. As mentioned above, I’ve known people in recovery who have chronic pain and have strung together lots of sober time. Part of the reason they’ve strung together lots of sober time is that they were open and honest during meetings and (I’m assuming) with their sponsor.  

“Meeting makers make it” is cliched for a reason.  


OTR Can Help 

Whether you have experienced chronic pain or not, OTR can help give you a strong foothold in recovery.