Setting Goals for Managing Chronic Pain

Goals provide purpose and drive in our lives. Can you think of a goal you once had and how it felt to achieve that goal? It felt great, right?

When you think of goals, the first thing that usually comes to mind is someone trying to reach a fitness goal or land their dream job. However, setting goals can be useful for managing chronic pain, too!

This article is all about setting goals for managing chronic pain. Let’s face it: managing pain is a huge task. The best way to tackle a large task is to set a goal and break it down into more manageable pieces.

What are goals and why are they important for chronic pain?

Goals are what we strive to achieve. When we have a goal, we put effort into achieving that goal so that we can improve. The distance between where we are now and where we want to be causes ambition towards reaching the goal.

Setting a goal can help us identify what steps we need to take to improve. Goals can become a guiding principle for how we live each day.

It’s no secret that living with chronic pain is challenging. It can take a lot of work and forethought to prevent and manage pain episodes. Waking up and thinking “what do I need to do today to feel okay?” can feel daunting. However, setting a goal related to your chronic pain can help make your preventative actions more purposeful. A goal becomes a target that you can centre yourself on.

Having a goal allows you to plan for your future. You become more motivated as you move toward reaching the goal. This feeling can help you feel more confident and more in control of your chronic pain. Eventually, you become empowered.

Example

When you have a clear goal, the steps to reach that goal become more apparent. Let’s use a hypothetical example.

“A major concern of mine is my mobility. It hurts to move around, but the less I move, the more pain I’m in, and the less mobile I become. I would love to improve my mobility and prevent further disability.

My goal is to be able to walk at a comfortable pace for 30 minutes each day by the end of the year.

Each day, I will wake up and walk around the block. I can currently walk for 5 minutes at a time. I’ll start at 5 minutes and add on two minutes each week until I can walk for 30 minutes each day. There is a bench on my route that I can sit down at if I need a rest. I will try to minimize using the bench as I progress.”

This person knows they want to become more mobile. Now, they have a clear goal that will help them gradually improve to the point where they can walk for half an hour each day. Seeing how many minutes they can go is a tangible number that they can assess to see their progress. They can also see if they are improving by seeing how often they need to sit and rest.

They can start small and work their way up slowly. This allows them to prioritize working on their endurance and strength to walk each day.

How to set a goal related to living with chronic pain

There is an acronym for making clear goals: SMART. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

Your goal should be specific, rather than vague. This will help you stay on track to exactly what you want to achieve.

It should be measurable so you can track your progress.

The goal should be attainable. It’s good to make sure the goal is possible in the first place. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for failure.

To make sure you’re prioritizing the right things, your goal should be relevant. This means it should matter to you and your current situation.

Finally, your goal should be time-bound. If you have no time-limit for your goal, you will never achieve it. Having a clear time boundary will make your efforts more direct.

Returning to the previous example, you can see that the goal is SMART. Notably, it is aimed towards making the person more mobile, which is relevant to their situation. They have a clear time-limit. Further, it is measurable because they’ve set a goal of walking for a certain amount of time.

For more information on setting clear goals, our CBT for Chronic Pain course has a whole lesson on setting goals. Click the link to jump to the course!

What kinds of goals might be relevant for managing pain?

Ok, so maybe you’re not sure how to make the goal relevant to managing your pain. One tip is that you shouldn’t focus your goal too much on the pain itself. It is not always attainable to be completely pain-free at the end of your goal.

Focus on other aspects of your life that are affected by pain. You’ll find that your pain intensity may improve as a result of improving other aspects of your functioning.

Think about how pain affects you the most. Are there things you miss out on due to pain? Are there areas of your functioning that are declining? What matters to you right now? It may be helpful to write this all down.

Some examples of relevant areas to base your goal on are as follows:

Physical Functioning

  • Improve strength, flexibility, ability to exercise, endurance

Medication and Treatment Adherence

  • Follow treatment plan
  • Take medication as prescribed
  • Reduce amount of extra painkillers taken

Improving Mood, Sleep, and Self-Esteem

  • Prioritize self-care, incorporate mindfulness and relaxation techniques
  • Engage with family and friends more often
  • Prioritize better sleep
  • Practice CBT techniques

Improving Productivity

  • Taking steps to return to work
  • Taking steps to engage in daily activities and chores
  • Reduce avoidance behaviors

Using I-Engage as a Chronic Pain Management Tool

Tracking your progress is an important part of reaching any goal. With I-Engage, you can clearly see how certain metrics are changing over time.

If you don’t know what I-Engage is, check out this link: click here. I-Engage is a chronic pain management tool for Android that allows you to track your pain experience over time and share it with your healthcare provider.

As you work toward your goal, you can see, for example, how your pain is changing.

Make sure to document when you begin working towards your goal so you can compare your progress from beginning to current. Filling out indexes can be a part of your goal to ensure that you are monitoring your progress. If you see your symptoms improve as a result of your goal, this can be so motivating to continue on the right path.

Conclusion

Trying to tackle your chronic pain all at once without any sort of guiding principle is overwhelming. Setting a clear goal can help you to better manage your pain day-to-day. It can also help prioritize your actions to achieve improvements that will make your quality of life better.

Setting a goal for chronic pain management can help you to feel more motivated to engage in self-care. It also provides a sense of purpose and direction.

So, if you already have a goal that you are working towards, comment it below!

If you haven’t made a goal yet, use this guide to create a goal. Then, share it below. We can use each other’s goals for inspiration and/or give feedback.


References 

Center For Pain Medicine. (n.d.). Patient Stories and Goals for Managing Pain. Brigham and Women’s Hospital. https://www.brighamandwomens.org/anesthesiology-and-pain-medicine/pain-management-center/patient-goals

Houston, E. (2020, October 10). What is goal setting and how to do it well. Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/goal-setting/

Mind Tools. (n.d.). Personal Goal Setting. https://www.mindtools.com/page6.html

Murphy, J.L., McKellar, J.D., Raffa, S.D., Clark, M.E., Kerns, R.D., & Karlin, B.E. (n.d.). Cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain among veterans: Therapist manual. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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  1. Comment your goals here!

  2. I have a background in sports and fitness, so goal setting has always been natural to me. When I first had my injury, the most difficult part was not being able to get out there and play sports 🙁 but, I still wanted to try to stay active, despite not being able to go for a run or play soccer. I made a goal that I wanted to learn basic yoga in the next couple of months. I did a new beginner yoga program three times a week and was eventually able to do my own yoga without having a guided program on youtube. Now, my flexibility and balance has increased so much. I think it’ll help a lot when I eventually get back to sports (hopefully!).

    1. Hi Steven,
      Thank you for sharing your goal, it sounds like you were able to reach it! I think it’s remarkable how you didn’t let your injury stop you from being active entirely. Instead, you found a different way to be active.
      Do you have any follow-up goals? Or, alternatively, a different goal that you are working towards now?

      1. You’re welcome and thank you for the kind words. I do have a follow-up goal! It’s mostly aimed towards improving my flexibility further or being able to do certain yoga poses that have been challenging for me. My other chronic-pain related goals are based on the treatment plan that my physiotherapist has given me.