6 Steps to faster recovery from illness or injury

At any given time, about 90 million Americans are healing from an illness or injury. During this healing period, patients often experience declines in immune function and heart efficiency and a loss of bone and muscle strength.

Example: People assigned to bed rest — after surgery, for example — lose 1% to 3% of their muscle strength daily over the first two weeks. They may lose 50% after three weeks or more.

These and many other factors, including depression, can greatly slow recovery — but you can take steps to stop this downward cycle and speed healing…

1. Set Specific Goals

Patients usually have an idea of what they want to achieve. Someone who has had back surgery might want to walk normally without pain. A patient recovering from a car accident wants to be able to get back to work.

But people often lack a plan — specific steps that can help them reach their long-term goals. The steps will be different for each person, depending on the underlying problem. For every patient, however, setting goals helps him/her define what he wants… the steps needed to achieve each goal… and benchmarks to measure progress.

Short-term goals. I recommend that patients identify eight easy-to-achieve goals that they plan to accomplish within one month. At the end of the month, they check their progress and create eight new goals for the next month.

Examples: Using a pedometer to count the number of steps you take daily — and setting a goal of 1,000 more daily steps by the end of a month… meeting a friend for lunch at least once a week. Social interactions have been shown to reduce healing times (see step #6 for more).

Long-term goals. These represent where you want to be in the future for optimal health.

Examples: Walking at least 5,000 steps daily… meeting with a counselor/psychologist to cope with mood problems… eating five daily servings of produce for better immunity, etc.

2. Rest To Recover

Much of the body’s recovery, including wound healing, occurs during sleep. Patients who sleep well have improved immunity and better blood sugar control. Sleep also improves mood.

Trap: Most patients who have experienced a significant injury or illness have difficulty sleeping. What to do…

Limit alcohol. It’s okay to have one drink with dinner but no more.

Ask your doctor about sleep aids. Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs are safe for short-term use (seven to 10 days) — and are helpful for patients who need help establishing better sleep habits. OTC drugs include Nytol QuickCaps, Tylenol PM and Simply Sleep Nighttime Sleep Aid Caplets. Prescription sleep aids include Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata.

3. Exercise Daily

Exercise increases muscle strength and accelerates every healing process, including the flow of nutrients to injured tissue… blood clotting and immune responses… and the synthesis of collagen for tissue healing.

In one study, researchers compared wound-healing rates in volunteers who exercised against volunteers who were sedentary. In the exercise group, the wounds took an average of 29 days to heal… in the sedentary group, the average healing time was about 40 days.

Almost everyone can exercise, regardless of the underlying condition. Someone with a broken leg might not be able to walk initially, but he/she can do upper-body exercises. Hospital patients often can use light hand weights… walk the halls… or do exercises to improve grip strength.

Ask your doctor to refer you to a physical therapist. He/she can design an exercise program that takes into account your physical limitations.

4. Eat To Heal

Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough key nutrients have significant changes in blood chemistry, strength, physical performance, etc. Adequate protein is essential for tissue healing… vitamin C improves immune function… vitamin A supports skin and bone healing… and zinc is required for cell growth. To get adequate nutrition, be sure to eat…

Five or more servings of brightly colored produce daily — broccoli, spinach, carrots, tomatoes and berries. These foods are high in antioxidants, which significantly improve immune function.

Foods rich in serotonin. Most antidepressants work by increasing brain levels of serotonin, a neurochemical that affects both mood and appetite. People can naturally increase serotonin by eating bananas, kiwi, plums and pineapple.

5. Cope With Pain

Patients who experience high levels of pain have impaired immunity and more stress. Pain also interferes with sleep, which can further delay healing.

Patients should never tolerate excessive pain. Most doctors aren’t trained in sophisticated pain-management techniques, so you may want to see a pain-management specialist (ask your doctor for a referral)… or get a second opinion if you feel your complaints about pain aren’t being addressed.

Don’t get “behind” the pain. Pain-killing drugs, including mild analgesics such as ibuprofen, are far more effective when taken at the first signs of pain or even before pain starts. They’re less effective once pain is under way.

Helpful: Take analgesics in the morning. Patients who treat their pain early in the day tend to get better relief — and often require less medication.

6. Mind Your Emotions

Emotions play a large role in how quickly and how well you heal. A 2005 study in Archives of General Psychiatry evaluated wound healing among couples. The quality of the couples’ relationships was rated as either “high hostile” or “low hostile,” depending on how they got along with each other. Wounds in the low-hostile group healed almost twice as fast as wounds in the high-hostile group.

Thousands of studies have looked at the effects of stress and other negative emotions on health. People under stress tend to get more respiratory infections. They have an increase in interleukin-6, a type of protein produced by immune cells that is a sign of inflammation. They also have decreased immunity and an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. What to do…

Practice mind-body therapies — meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, etc. For more information on these therapies, go to www.nccam.nih.gov, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Reduce day-to-day stress with regular exercise and pleasurable hobbies.

Foster nurturing relationships — by getting together with friends, for example, and welcoming help from others.

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