Pain lets you know that health trouble has arrived. But sometimes pain won't go away after delivering the message.
Consider the case of Dave Brown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who develops GPS systems for fire departments. He's 27, but when he rolls out of bed he feels like he should be AARP-eligible next June. "My pain is nearly constant," says Brown, who attributes his achy back and neck to 14 years of soccer. "I deal with it, but it makes me less productive."
At night he usually winds up on the couch, too drained to move.
"When pain is no longer useful, it becomes detrimental to the body," says Carol A. Warfield, M.D., a professor of anesthesia at Harvard medical school. "It can affect everything from mood to quality of life."
But with these tips from top medical experts, you can learn to control pain, not be a slave to it.
A scorched mouth (pizza burn)
Understand it: "The tissue in the roof of the mouth is very thin, so it's sensitive and prone to a painful burn when hot food meets your palate," says Michael W. Smith, M.D., chief medical editor for WebMD.
Stop it: Pop an ice cube for damage control; you're numbing the area and reducing swelling. Anbesol or another oral-use topical anesthetic can help, too. Still hurts? After eating, rinse with a solution of 1/8 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water. The salt will help disinfect your mouth. Just don't swallow.
Prevent it: Be careful with foods coming out of the microwave. "While the outside may feel just warm, the inside may be scorching hot," says Dr. Smith. Let any nuked meal rest for at least a few minutes before digging in.
Understand it: The band of tissue that runs along the arch of your foot is inflamed from hitting the treadmill or pavement.
Stop it: Ease up on the cardio until the stabbing pain's edge dulls. If it flares back up, take ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) and ice your heel for 15 to 20 minutes. Loosening up the area might also help.
"Men with this problem often have tight calf muscles and Achilles tendons," says Matthew Matava, M.D., an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University.
Try rolling each foot over a tennis ball for 10 to 15 minutes, several times a day. Still hurts? Use a night splint to keep your foot, calf, and plantar fascia stretched overnight, reducing the pain, says Nicholas A. DiNubile, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and the author of "FrameWork: Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones, and Joints."
Prevent it: Don't set the treadmill on an incline. "Running uphill strains the plantar fascia," says Dr. Matava, who recommends finding running shoes with strong arch supports that fit your foot's structure to relieve pressure. (We like the Asics Gel-Evolution 4.)
Understand it: Stomach acid spills into your esophagus, burning like a forest fire.
Stop it: Reach for an over-the-counter acid blocker such as Pepcid AC or Zantac 75, or chew sugarless gum. A study in the Journal of Dental Research found that chewing gum for 30 minutes after a high-fat meal lessens acid reflux by generating enough saliva to make you swallow more and push acid back down.
Still hurts? You might have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. See a doctor; GERD can lead to esophageal cancer.
Prevent it: Make stomach acid work against gravity at night by placing 2-inch blocks under the legs at the head of your bed, says Ted Epperly, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Also, if you're a smoker, here's one more reason to quit. "Nicotine relaxes the LES valve, the muscle at the end of the esophagus, which usually opens only to allow food to pass into the stomach," says Dr. Smith. "Once it's loosened, acid can shoot back into the esophagus."
Understand them: The veins in or around your anus are swollen and irritated.
Stop them: Apply a hemorrhoid-shrinking nonprescription ointment (such as Preparation H) in the morning, at night, and after each bowel movement. And soak the offending area in a tub filled with several inches of warm water for 15 to 20 minutes, three to four times a day. This can help decrease the painful swelling, Dr. Smith says.
Still hurts? If the pain persists after 2 weeks, you may require surgery.
Prevent them: Consume at least 25 grams of fiber and slug back no fewer than eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Understand it: A nerve running from your forearm to your wrist is squeezed or inflamed within the narrow passageway of ligament and bones at the base of the hand.
Stop it: Hit the mat. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a twice-weekly yoga regimen practiced for 8 weeks eased symptoms and improved grip strength. You can also wear a wrist splint at night or while typing or driving. "It keeps your wrist neutral, which prevents further compression and irritation of the nerve," says Tanya J. Lehky, M.D., director of the Clinical EMG Lab at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Still hurts? Ask your doctor for a referral to a hand surgeon, who can either inject corticosteroids into the carpal tunnel to reduce swelling and inflammation, or perform surgery to correct the problem.
Prevent it: "Set your keyboard at a height that allows your hand to work in a straight or neutral position," says Dr. Lehky. "Bending your wrist too far forward or backward pressures the nerve."
Understand it: Ultraviolet rays inflame skin cells and irritate nerves. Reinforcements — bloodborne repair cells and nutrients — arrive on the scene. Skin temperature rises. Friends remind you of this crazy new invention called sunblock.
Stop it: To reduce inflammation, take a few ibuprofen and apply a cool, wet cloth. Next, slather yourself with skin cream. (We like Neutrogena Skin Aid; it contains glycerin, which is used in burn centers.)
"Nerves that are exposed to the air hurt," says Adnan Nasir, M.D., an adjunct clinical assistant professor of dermatology at UNC Chapel Hill. "Covering them with a moist ointment can reduce the pain on contact." For extra cooling, pop the lotion into the freezer for 10 minutes or so before application.
Still hurts? Take 900 micrograms of vitamin A and 15 milligrams of vitamin E every day for 2 weeks after a toasting. "Sunburn creates cell-damaging molecules called free radicals," says Dr. Nasir. "Damaged cells increase inflammation, causing even more pain. These two vitamins help by scavenging free radicals."
Prevent it: Read the sun-exposure warnings on your Rx labels. "A whole range of medications, from antibiotics to blood-pressure medications, increase sensitivity to the sun," says Dr. Nasir.
Understand it: Changes in brain chemicals activate neuropeptides that invade the brain's covering, resulting in increased bloodflow and inflammation. The result is a throbbing, pulsing headache that can last for hours or days.
Stop it: Try Excedrin Migraine for a mild to moderate migraine — it has caffeine, which will help your body absorb the pain-relieving ingredients faster. You, on the other hand, should slow down.
"People with migraines have hyperexcitable brains, so they're more prone to headaches after experiencing stressors," says Steven M. Baskin, Ph.D., director of the New England Institute for Behavioral Medicine. Laying a pack of frozen peas across the back of your neck for 10 to 15 minutes can help, too.
Still hurts? If your condition is severe, talk to your doctor about migraine-specific drugs called triptans, which are very effective when taken in moderation, says Baskin.
Prevent it: Decipher your migraine triggers by downloading a headache diary at achenet.org/tools/diaries. Then add 600 milligrams of magnesium (gradually — too much at once can cause diarrhea) and 400 milligrams of riboflavin to your daily vitamin intake. Studies have linked low levels of magnesium to migraine attacks, and in one Neurology study, nearly 60 percent of people who took riboflavin daily for 3 months cut their migraine days by at least half.
Understand it: The thick cord that attaches muscle to bone becomes worn, irritated, or inflamed, causing pain or range-of-motion limitations at your shoulder, elbow, Achilles tendon, or knee. Blame repetitive use, like swinging a golf club or a tennis racket too often, or using incorrect technique, or both.
Stop it: Take a week off from the activity, during which time you can dull the pain with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as naproxen (e.g., Aleve). Dr. Matava also recommends icing the tendon for 15 to 20 minutes, two or three times a day, until the pain subsides.
Still hurts? See a physical therapist or certified athletic trainer, says Dr. Matava.
Prevent it: "Cross-training helps relieve stress on the muscles and tendons involved," says Dr. Matava, who encourages incorporating swimming, cycling, and weight training into your workout regimen along with regular tendon testers like running or tennis. Just be sure it doesn't involve the affected area.
Understand it: Bacteria-filled plaque that settled on your teeth has been feasting away on sugars and other carbohydrates. The acidic by-products ate away at the tooth enamel; the resulting cavity allowed bacteria to invade the tissues and nerves inside, causing a painful infection.
Stop it: Take a few ibuprofen to help with the pain, and ask your dentist to call in an antibiotic before your appointment if you can't come in right away. "Although the antibiotic won't cure the toothache, it can reduce the infection in the gum and jaw around the tooth, easing pain," says Jerry Gordon, D.M.D, owner of the Dental Comfort Zone in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. He recommends rinsing with warm salt water four to six times throughout the day to ease any swelling associated with the infected tooth.
Still hurts? "Once a toothache occurs, the only solution is a root canal or having the tooth pulled," says Dr. Gordon. Too late for a mere filling, your cavity has now reached the pulp inside the tooth.
Prevent it: Limit your intake of high-carbohydrate foods like candy and sugar-frosted cereal. "Every exposure to these foods allows an acid attack on the teeth for about 20 minutes," says Dr. Gordon.
If you must drink soda or sugar-filled drinks, he says, sip through a straw to bypass your teeth. To rid your mouth of cavity-causing plaque, brush three times a day, floss, and consider using an oral irrigator, such as the Conair Interplak Dental Water Jet.
Understand it: "The most common problem is muscle strain," says Dr. Matava. "The muscles are stretched and microscopic tears occur in those fibers, which release chemicals that activate nerve endings throughout the area."
Stop it: Take ibuprofen and heat the area for 10 to 15 minutes a few times a day. But don't shut things down completely. "Bed rest leads to stiffness and decreased flexibility, both of which only increase pain," says Dr. Smith. Dial down your activity a bit, and then dial it back up as the pain begins to ease.
Still hurts? If dialing down your activity level doesn't work, the next steps might include physical therapy, deep-tissue injection, or even surgery. So see your doctor.
Prevent it: Stretch your hamstrings once your body is already warmed up, not before. "When the hamstrings are tight, they can pull on the small postural muscles of the low back, causing pain," says Perry Fine, M.D., a professor of anesthesiology at University of Utah school of medicine.