The First Step to Healing Chronic Pain

Photo courtesy of Gaelle Marcel via

One of the best pieces of chronic pain advice I ever received was from a neurologist I saw over a decade ago who had a heavy Eastern European accent.

As my first (and only) appointment with her was winding to a close — and I had yet to receive a single bit of tangible help from her — I finally asked, “Isn’t there ANY advice you can give me to make my pain stop?”

The doctor folded her arms, leaned back in her chair with a smile on her face, and simply said, “Ya. You valk. Each day.”

Then she looked at me and shrugged as if to say, “See? So very simple, this chronic pain thing.”

“THAT’S IT?” I asked, incredulous. “Just walk? That’s ALL you can tell me?”

“Ya,” she replied. “Valk. Each day.” Then she escorted me to the door.

I HATE it when rude people are right

I walked out of that woman’s office fuming that day, because, like many doctors, her information was A+ but her delivery of it was a C-. Of course it wasn’t that simple. In the end, taking her advice was quite hard.

I needed to buy special support gear to wear while I walked. I had to work with a trainer to retrain my left leg to function properly after it had atrophied from lack of use. I struggled for months to even walk a block, followed by many more months of literal steps forward and metaphorical steps backward, day after day.

One day though, things changed. Suddenly it WAS that simple. I “valked” each day and it made me feel better, so I continued to do it for years. I learned never to take more than two days off, even when I was re-injured, because when I did, my pain would become worse.

I share this story because walking never seems to get the credit it deserves for pain recovery, even though it has been proven to be effective in reducing musculoskeletal pain. Too many doctors fail to mention it to their patients, and too many patients overlook it in favor of cooler options.

That’s a shame, since walking is free, relatively easy, and you can likely do it this very moment. (Even if all you can manage is three laps around your couch) Not only that, bodies like to walk. They were made to walk and have been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years.

Walking is kinda boring. You should do it anyway.

To incorporate more walking into your pain recovery plans, start slow. Don’t worry about how far you go, but instead focus on how frequently you go and how walking makes you feel, overall. Additionally…

  • Consider investing in a good pair of athletic shoes. Don’t wear flip-flops or slip ons, rationalizing that you’re not walking far so it won’t matter what you’re wearing. Even a short walk should be supported by the right gear.
  • If you choose to walk while chatting with a friend or listening to music, be careful not to shift your focus too far out of your body. Try to stay present and be aware of your posture and gait.
  • If you need to challenge yourself, incrementally increase your distance or pace or alter your course (e.g. add in some hills.)
  • If possible, try to walk outdoors. Not only will it be helpful psychologically, it will expose you to sunshine so you can get some Vitamin D. If slippery snow or ice is a concern, walk on a treadmill or at a track at a local fitness center or indoor mall. (The latter two will give you the added security of having people around you who can assist you if you have a medical emergency.)

Need inspiration to get started? Check out Alexandra Horowitz’s book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. In it, she takes eleven walks around the block with eleven different guides who help her see her block in eleven different ways.

The lesson of the book is an important one for people in pain: you can pack a whole lot of life into your walks if you choose to take them mindfully. There is a world out there for you to explore, even if you can only “valk”” one small block of it at a time.

Interested in this topic? Please follow me on Medium to read more posts about chronic pain and my new book, Chronic Pain Recovery: A Practical Guide to Putting Your Life Back Together After Everything Has Fallen Apart, now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Google Play and Kobo.