17 Subtle Signs Your Pain Is Improving More Than You Think
Living with pain can be a winding road. Learn about some of the subtle signs that your pain is improving along the way.
When you’ve been in pain for a long time, it can be hard to see little improvements along the way. No matter why your pain started (say, arthritis, injury, stress, or who knows what), most people look for obvious signs of improvement. (We’re talking, well — less pain.) It’s not at all uncommon to feel like you aren’t making progress fast enough. But is that really true?
While less pain overall is probably your ultimate goal, there can be subtle indications that your musculoskeletal (muscle and joint) pain may be getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel like your pain is getting better. And it’s important to acknowledge those small improvements, even if they don’t feel like much.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Dr. Heather Broach, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Why Look for Subtle Signs?
Research tells us that celebrating progress — no matter how big or small it may feel — is a very important component to reaching your goals and seeing less pain.
Acknowledging progress activates the reward center of your brain. Specifically, it triggers the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine, which is associated with happiness and self-confidence. That increases your motivation to continue working toward your goal, thus setting a positive chain of events in motion.
Plus, success is usually the accumulation of small changes over time. Consider this: If you put an ice cube in a room that is 25 degrees Fahrenheit and slowly heat up the room, the ice cube only starts to melt when the room hits 32 degrees. A seemingly small shift — no different than the shift from 30 to 31 degrees — actually results in what can be thought of as a ‘breakthrough moment.’ Adopting habits and routines that help reduce your pain can be similar. What may feel like a small change today could actually be a breakthrough moment.
Even with subtle improvements in your pain and function, remember that the path to healing is rarely linear. It often includes setbacks along the way, and it’s expected for pain to ebb and flow with occasional pain flares (such as during times of stress or poor sleep or other issues). That’s why, for many people, it’s less helpful to think of “no pain” as the ultimate goal and instead strive toward developing a solid toolkit that allows you to manage your pain so you can return to the activities you most enjoy in life. This is why recognizing the subtle signs of progress is so important: It's what keeps you going even when your pain can be unpredictable. It can give you motivation to stick with the habits and behaviors that are keeping your pain in check, such as daily movement.
17 Subtle Signs that Show Your Pain is Improving
While obvious leaps in pain reduction are certainly cause for celebration, subtler signs of progress can offer major insights into your body’s healing. Here are clues that Hinge Health members often share with physical therapists and health coaches.
1. You Have Better Range of Motion
One subtle yet significant sign of improving joint health is an increased range of motion. You may notice that you can perform movements that were previously difficult or impossible. For example, you might be able to bend your knee a little further or reach for objects with less discomfort. “I have a great range of motion now,” a Hinge Health member shared with us recently. “I can walk up and down stairs with great control, and squats and lunges are no problem.” This gradual expansion in your range of motion indicates that your joints are becoming less stiff and more flexible.
2. You Have Less Morning Stiffness
Many people with joint pain experience stiffness, particularly in the morning, which can make it challenging to start your day. “Stiffness is often your body’s way of asking you to move more and for you to load your muscles,” says Heather Broach, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. For many people, stiff joints get better as the day goes on, she adds. If you notice that your mornings are starting off less painful and you’re getting through your morning routine faster, it could be a good sign that you’re improving.
3. You’re Taking Less Pain Medication
As your pain diminishes, you may find that you need to take fewer pain relievers or that you can go longer periods without them. As one Hinge Health member said: “I woke up yesterday with some pain that I thought would take me out for the day. Instead of reaching for my medication, I did my stretches and then went about my day. It wasn't until last night that I realized that my pain had subsided.” Any reduction in medication usage can reflect an improvement in your joint pain and demonstrates that your body is recovering.
4. You Have More Energy
Living with persistent joint pain can leave you feeling drained and fatigued. However, as your joint pain improves, you may notice a boost in your energy levels. You might find yourself feeling more motivated and capable of engaging in activities that were once too tiring or challenging. This increase in energy is a positive sign that your joints may be healing and that you are regaining your vitality.
5. Your Mood and Mental Well-being Are Improved
Chronic pain can take a toll on your mental health, leading to feelings of frustration, anxiety, or even depression. When your joint pain begins to improve, you may experience a lift in your mood and an overall improvement in your mental well-being. You may find it easier to engage in social activities, pursue hobbies, or simply enjoy life more fully. This positive shift in mental state can indicate that your joint pain is gradually subsiding, and that you feel more equipped and empowered to manage it.
6. You Feel Stronger
Maybe you’ve noticed that you feel less fatigued after climbing that flight of stairs. Or the 10-pound dumbbells you’ve been using in your workouts aren’t leaving you so worn out. These are all signs that you’re getting stronger. This, in turn, allows you to be more active which helps to further control pain and speed up your healing.
7. You’re Recovering From Exercise Faster
Early on in your pain management journey, you may have been more exhausted after a Hinge Health exercise therapy session, seeing a physical therapist, or doing a workout. As you heal and make progress, your body can recover more quickly and you may experience less intense pain upticks during and after movement or simply feel less exhausted from physical activity.
8. You Have Better Daily Function
Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re able to do more daily activities, like cooking, cleaning, or shopping. One Hinge Health member told us they can tell a difference in going up and down the stairs and getting out of bed. “I can do these things without discomfort or decreased mobility,” they said. These things often indicate your joint pain is improving.
These changes are easy to miss, but they’re important to take note of because they suggest you may be able to do more activities you love — whether that’s pickleball, walking, or gardening — with less pain and discomfort, too.
9. You’re Sleeping Better
“Sleep is important for pain because your body needs to repair itself,” explains Dr. Broach. “The problem is that if you’re in pain, you’re less likely to get the sleep you need.” If you begin noticing improvements in your sleep quality, such as falling asleep faster, experiencing fewer interruptions during the night, or waking up feeling more refreshed, it may suggest that your joint pain is improving.
10. You Have Less Frequent Pain Flares
Seeing a decrease in pain intensity is always encouraging, but it’s important to take note of how frequently you experience pain. Fewer pain flares, and more time between pain flares, is an indicator that your pain is improving and that you can continue to ease back into activities you may have stopped because of pain.
11. Your Balance Is Improved
Some types of joint pain can take a toll on your sense of balance. If you noticed a decline in balance as your pain got worse and are now pleasantly surprised that you can stand on one leg, or notice that you feel steadier when carrying something heavy, your pain might also be improving. “The best benefit I get from the exercises is better balance. At the beginning it was difficult for me to get up and down from the floor, but that has greatly improved,” said one Hinge Health member.
12. You Have a Less Noticeable Limp
If your joint pain caused you to limp, an improvement might be seen in a less noticeable limp or the absence of it altogether. This may even allow you to do things like rush to catch a bus or hurry through a crosswalk before the light turns where you wouldn’t have been able to do those things before. It may also allow you to use a brace or assistive device less often, or only have to rely on those things for more strenuous activities, like walking or standing for long periods.
13. You Have Decreased Swelling
In some cases, joint pain is accompanied by swelling. Whether your swelling usually comes and goes or remains constant, a decrease in swelling may be accompanied by a decrease in pain.
14. You Can Do Activities That Require Fine Motor Skills Better
If your pain affects your ability to do fine motor tasks, you may notice that you’re able to do things such as write, use your phone, type on a computer, or button a shirt quicker and with less pain.
15. You Notice Changes in How You Get Dressed
Pain causes many people to change parts of their daily routines, like how they get dressed. Little shifts, like standing (instead of sitting) to put your pants on, bending over to put your shoes on, putting a shirt on over your head, or buttoning your shirt without needing a special tool are all signs that your pain is getting better.
16. You’re Moving Around at Work More
Pain discourages a lot of people from moving because it’s either too uncomfortable or they fear they’ll make their pain worse. “But our bodies weren’t designed to sit at a desk for hours at a time,” says Dr. Broach. “When you don’t move around enough, your joints and tissues can get grumpy.”
It’s not so much about how you position yourself, adds Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “What matters is how long you stay in one particular position.” If you notice you’re taking more ‘movement snacks', changing positions more frequently, or spending more time standing or walking during your workday, ask yourself if you’re doing these things because your pain is getting better. There’s a good chance it is.
17. You Can Return to Some of Your Normal Activities
Pain may have stopped you from doing some of the things you love — playing sports, walking, biking, standing for long periods of time, and more. If you find yourself easing back into these activities, even if you still have some pain, it’s a good sign that you’re improving. And if you have avoided returning to these things because you’re afraid of making your pain worse, testing the waters is a good way to not only assess your progress, but to help your body heal. As Hinge Health physical therapists always say, movement is medicine. By doing the activities you love, even if they’re a little uncomfortable, you can help your body heal.
Recovery from joint pain may feel like a winding road. There can be ups and downs or improvements followed by occasional setbacks. Everyone’s recovery path is different. But one feature that’s common for many: “You’ll often see some improvement in function before you see a reduction in pain,” says orthopedic surgeon Jonathan Lee, MD, associate medical director at Hinge Health. So don’t be discouraged if you’re still waiting to feel better. But if you're experiencing even a few of these signs, consider them an indication of progress and hope for a future with reduced joint pain and improved mobility.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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