How Pacing Can Stop the Boom-Bust Cycle of Pain

Article by Gabriella Kelly-Davies, Pain News Network Columnist

Many people living with chronic pain are stuck in a boom-bust cycle. I was one of them until I took part in a multidisciplinary pain management program and learned how to pace my activities and exercises.

On the good days when our pain level is low, we try to catch up on doing all the things we couldn’t do when the pain was bad the previous day. But this can cause a flare-up and the natural response is to rest or take a pain medication. Once the pain eases, we might try again, only to repeat the pattern of overactivity, flare-up, rest, easing of pain, then overactivity.

When this happens repeatedly, we can become frustrated and despair of ever being able to live a normal life. It becomes difficult to plan ahead because we never know how we will be on any day. Over time, there are fewer good days and more bad days and we feel as if we have lost control of our life. We become so afraid of causing a flare-up that we avoid any activity that aggravates our pain.

The end result is that our bodies lose conditioning and become less able to cope with a higher level of activity. Muscles weaken, joints stiffen, and less and less activity causes a flare-up.

The good news is that we can use a pain management technique known as pacing to increase our activity levels without stirring up the pain. Pacing involves starting at a level of activity that doesn’t aggravate our pain, breaking up tasks into smaller steps, gradually increasing the amount we do, and taking frequent, small breaks. Over time, it is possible to increase our tolerance to a range of daily activities and exercises. 

Set Goals and Build Up Gradually

Pacing can be applied to everything you do. If sitting increases your lower back pain, try to use pacing to build up your sitting tolerance. You can also pace exercises such as walking and swimming, and use it to increase your tolerance to activities such as housework, gardening and driving.

The first step is to decide which activities or exercises are your priorities, then determine your baseline tolerance to them. A starting point 20 percent below your current level is a general rule of thumb. If sitting exacerbates your lower back pain, determine how long you can sit comfortably. If you can sit for five minutes without triggering a flare-up, set your baseline at 80 percent of five minutes, which is four minutes.

Once you know your baseline, set short and long-term goals and record them in a chart. Each day, increase the time you do the activity or exercise by a predetermined small amount.

If your long-term goal is to sit and watch a movie for two hours without causing a flare-up and your baseline is four minutes, your short-term goal might be to increase your sitting by one minute each day. At the end of the week if you can sit comfortably for 10 minutes, you can repeat this pattern for the following weeks until you reach two hours. However, if you find that increasing by one minute every day stirs up your pain, try increasing by one minute every second or third day.

Record your progress in a chart like the one below so you can see how much you are building sitting tolerance.


Pacing chart.png


Pacing chart.png

Break Up Activities

Pacing also involves breaking up tasks into smaller amounts that don’t cause a flare-up. If carrying heavy bags of groceries from the supermarket exacerbates your back pain, try buying smaller amounts of groceries more often. For example, go to the supermarket three times a week and buy small amounts rather than doing one big shop each week.

Taking short and frequent breaks is another way of gradually building up your tolerance to an activity. For example, if you can weed your garden for 10 minutes without flaring up your pain, make your baseline 80 percent of 10 minutes, which is eight minutes. Work in the garden for eight minutes, rest for 15 to 30 minutes, garden for another eight minutes, rest for 15 to 30 minutes, and so on. During your rest period, it’s a good idea to practice your relaxation exercises and stretches.

As your tolerance to gardening increases, you can gradually build up the time you garden before you rest.

Fine-Tuning Your Plan

Pacing is a process of trial and error, and your initial goals might need to be fine-tuned if you find that pain interferes with you achieving them. Try to be patient and don’t overdo it. It’s better to take baby steps and achieve your goals than to race ahead and fall back into the boom-bust cycle.

It’s crucial you stick with your plan each day. If you are having a good low-pain day, don’t be tempted to increase each activity for longer than the predetermined time because you might risk flaring up your pain. On the other hand, if you are having a bad day, try to stick with your goals for the day, but take brief breaks and do your relaxation exercises and stretches during the breaks.

Pacing is an important part of an armory of pain management strategies. Like other multidisciplinary pain management approaches, it takes time to learn, but once you master the technique, it will put you in control of your day rather than your pain level dictating what you can and can’t do.

By keeping to your plan in a disciplined way, you will gradually build up your tolerance to activities of daily living and leisure. With practice, you, rather than your pain level, will determine how much you can do, giving you more control and a better quality of life.

Gabriella Kelly-Davies is a biographer who lives with chronic migraine.  She recently authored “Breaking Through the Pain Barrier,” a biography of trailblazing Australian pain specialist Dr. Michael Cousins. Gabriella is President of Life Stories Australia Association and founder of Share your life story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s