How Chronic Pain Patients Can Protect Their Heart Health

heart health

This February, while you’re seeing hearts for Valentine’s Day, take a closer look at your physical heart health and consider vowing to make an extra effort to keep it healthy. February is American Heart Month, an initiative organized in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to save lives by encouraging those with high blood pressure to get it under control.

Why the focus on heart health? 

While a number of different symbols eventually became associated with the feeling of love, none is more ubiquitous than the heart. This muscle beating within all of our chests doesn’t look even remotely like the doodle lining the margins of many teenage girls’ notebooks so how did the heart become associated with romantic love?

Many early cultures associated the heart with the center of human emotion. The Egyptians believed that the soul was housed in the heart and it controlled will, thought, emotion, and intention. This is reflected in their word for happiness which translates literally as “wideness of heart.” Ancient Chinese, Hebrew, and East Indian cultures all made similar associations.

While most of these associations aren’t grounded in biology, the heart will forever be the symbol of love. February is also American Heart Month. What better time to focus on the center of love and emotion than right around Valentine’s Day?

According to the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC), over 600,000 people die of heart disease each year. Heart disease is actually the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Heart attacks happen to 720,000 individuals. Over 200,000 of these are experienced by people who have already suffered a heart attack in the past.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death. That’s the bad news. The good news is that many factors leading to heart disease are controllable. Lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, and stress reduction contribute to heart health by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels. You can do this even as a pain patient.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is an umbrella term for a series of conditions that may result when the arteries build up with plaque, a condition known as atherosclerosis. This plaque buildup reduces the ability of blood to flow through, which increases the risk for blood clots that may stop the flow completely. When the blood flow stops, a heart attack or stroke occurs.

Many people survive heart attacks and go on to lead full, active lives, but they’re frequently fatal. Once you have one heart attack, you’re at high risk for another and must make changes like improving your diet and possibly taking medications to lower that risk.

Strokes, meanwhile, develop when a vessel carrying blood to the brain experiences a block, shutting off blood flow to the brain. This is why some people may lose mobility in certain parts of their body or experience problems with speech after a stroke. It depends on which section of the brain was affected by the blockage.

How are chronic pain and heart health related?

heart disease

Living with chronic pain may make it difficult to exercise and eat well, upping your risk for poor heart health.

What’s more, some pain medications may further exacerbate this risk.

And, if your chronic pain has developed from diabetes (common in leg and nerve pain), then you should be extra cautious. This disease doubles your risk of heart attack or stroke. Many of the risk factors are the same, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). They include obesity, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. Additionally, multiple studies have shown that insulin resistance and high blood pressure go hand in hand, the AHA says.

How can I improve my heart health?

Especially for patients already coping with the difficulties of chronic pain, it is important to recognize that heart disease is mostly preventable. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can help reduce pain caused by your condition but it can also keep you from succumbing to heart disease in the future.

Eat healthy

One of the most important things you can do to reduce the risk of heart disease is to eat a healthy diet. Whole grains, vegetables, and plenty of fruit not only help manage chronic pain and reduce diabetes risk, but they also keep the heart healthy.

The ADA offers a few easy recommendations for making your diet healthier. They include:

  • Eating nuts or fruit instead of chips or cookies for a snack.
  • Enjoy chicken breasts for dinner instead of fattier legs or thighs.
  • Eat more fish and less steak.
  • Eat more vegetables and less animal protein. Soups and casseroles are good ways to achieve this goal.
  • Eat whole-grain bread instead of white, which spikes blood sugar.
  • Reduce soda intake, and drink more water.

It is also important to reduce or eliminate unhealthy fats from your diet. These include saturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fat. Instead, replace red meat with fatty fish like salmon and add natural, plant based proteins and fats, such as nuts and avocados. Red wine can also be healthy for your heart but be sure to drink moderately for the best results (and always avoid it if recommended by your doctor).

All of this should, of course be paired with maintaining a healthy weight and overall lifestyle.

Talk to your doctor about your pain reliever intake

If you rely on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen to reduce pain, be aware that you may be increasing your risk of heart disease, including high blood pressure and possible heart failure. It’s been known for several years that long-term use of these medications presents a risk to the heart, but increasing amounts of data is showing that the risk may be more dramatic that previously imagined.

In July 2015, the Food and Drug Administration intensified its warnings about the pills for people concerned with heart health, a move that’s highly unusual, according to Harvard Health. Aspirin was not included in the warning.

FDA heightened its existing stance that the drugs were potentially harmful after an expert panel reviewed recent research and uncovered grave concerns. The most dangerous NSAID, rofecoxib, was linked to 140,000 heart attacks over five years before it was taken off the market.

Risks of NSAIDs begin after just several weeks of taking them regularly, with bigger risks associated with larger doses. People already with heart disease experience the most significant risk, but others’ heart health is also at risk from regular NSAID intake.

Mitigate your risk by taking these medications mindfully and working to reduce pain through other means whenever possible. Always talk to your doctor before making any changes to your current medication usage, however. They can help you find other complementary treatments to help replace some of their pain relieving benefits.

Exercise more

You’ve heard it again and again, but that’s because exercise is one of the most important things you can do to encourage heart health. Even if you’re in a lot of pain, it’s important to find some way to exercise.

Cardiologist and previous AHA president Dr. Robert Bonow recommends at least 30 minutes each day. He says:

“Find the most comfortable way of exercise for you…You can even do exercises while laying on your back. Anything that increases aerobic activity is beneficial.”

That might mean taking yoga or tai chi, or walking after dinner. Anything to get your blood flowing and heart pumping. Bonow said although NSAIDs increase the potential of heart disease, taking the pills in order to exercise could outweigh that risk. However, it’s important to talk to your doctor about your specific risk profile to make the best decision for you.

Physical activity helps strengthen the heart and keep your weight at a healthier level. If you’re not used to exercise it is recommended to start slow. Add low-impact exercises such as walking, yoga, or swimming to your routine and steadily increase the amount that makes you comfortable. Even better news is that your regular physical activities, like gardening, walking the dog, or going up and down the stairs in your house actually counts toward your daily goals. Keep a pedometer on you to determine your success rate each day.

It may also help to find a group of exercise buddies, whether at your local gym or through Meetup.com, for accountability and motivation.

heart healthy

Reduce stress

Stress worsens, or sometimes causes, chronic pain, and it also contributes to heart problems. One of the most powerful ways you can promote heart health is by stressing less. Researchers aren’t exactly sure how stress contributes to heart disease, but one way it’s believed to increase the risk is by changing people’s behaviors, according to AHA.

Stress often inspires unhealthy decisions like smoking, drinking too much, eating sugary or fatty comfort foods, and inactivity. Fortunately, exercise helps to reduce stress while also encouraging heart health. When you’re feeling stressed, it can be difficult to find the motivation to exercise. This is when accountability buddies come in handy to help you stay on track.

Quit smoking

While most people associate cigarettes with lung health and cancer, it is also one of the leading contributors to heart disease.

The chemicals used in cigarettes cause damage to the heart and blood vessels. Smoking also infuses the body with carbon monoxide which causes high blood pressure and raises the risk of heart attack or stroke. Quitting can actually reduce your chances of developing heart disease almost immediately. And, it can have benefits for many pain conditions, especially joint pain.

Work with a specialist to help increase your chances of quitting successfully.

Get the right amount of sleep

Sleep deprivation is actually an epidemic in our county. It can cause risky behaviors such as driving while drowsy which can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

However, a lack of sleep can also cause:

  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of obesity
  • Heart disease

How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? If you wake up refreshed without an alarm clock, you’re doing fine. If you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, you probably need more sleep. The best thing you can do is create a sleep schedule and stick to it. Go to bed the same time every day. Before turning off the light give yourself a routine that tells your brain it is time to rest.

Undergo preventative measures

Other preventative measures you can take include testing for heart disease markers and tracking your family history. Get screened for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

You can learn more about American Heart Month at the American Heart Association website and GoRedForWomen.org.

How will you protect your heart this Valentine’s Day? To talk to a pain specialist about protecting your heart health, while also dealing with chronic pain, contact our office today!