Gift Guide For Chronic Pain — UPDATED FOR 2021!

by Janet Jay
On a background of stars text reads "Gift guide for chronic pain: updated for 2021, janetjay.com"

Christmas is coming! (And my birthday too… just sayin’) and that’s got me thinking about all the little gadgets I continually recommend to my friends. Some of this stuff took me 20 years to learn about (theracane, where were you all my life?!) and some are old standbys that can help a surprising amount. Here’s a gift guide for chronic pain patients full of guaranteed wins– mostly items I currently own and use myself. (Of course, if you have chronic pain yourself and this stuff sounds rad, I say treat yo’self.)

Full disclosure: I am posting these options with Amazon affiliate links, because why not, though if you have a local business you can buy from I very much recommend and prefer you go there instead. I’ll also just leave the link to my Patron here, just in case anybody would like to buy me a cup of coffee.

NEXT UP: Updated gift guide for chronic pain patients in the hellyear 2021!

Standing Strong

 For me, standing is one of the most difficult, painful things there is. For instance, cooking is really hard for me, given the amount of standing it requires. But once I got a gel anti-fatigue mat, it made the process easier. And it doesn’t have to be cooking of course: does the person you’re shopping for stand up to do stretches and PT while they watch tv? Do they have a standing desk of some sort? Whatever it is, grab one of these mats. They’re not all black and ugly, either (though of course, some companies had to cock that up).

View from behind of an african american man sitting at a desk on a yoga ball seat, stretching his arms
There are a ton of slightly different varieties of these yoga ball seats… if you have one you love, let me know!

Desk the halls (sorry, sorry)

Speaking of desks… almost everybody can benefit from making their workspace more ergonomic, especially for people who found themselves suddenly thrown into working from home last year.

(What makes a desk ergonomic? Here’s some great info from the Mayo Clinic and a super simple piece from the NHS called “How to Sit At Your Desk Correctly”.)

A good, supportive desk chair is the biggest thing, but I don’t know enough about the options to recommend anything. Luckily, there are tons of other cheaper options that can help too.

Keyboard on keyboard try attached to the underneath of a wood desk

What do you use to make your desk more ergonomic?

Vibrate at your own frequency

"5 interchangable massage nodes, relive pain and fatigue on whole body: round head, 1-point head, 3-intensive head, 30-point head, curved head" for back massager

I love my little (well, bigish) back massager. To get it out of the way first: yeah, you can use it for, uh, “me time.” But for someone in chronic pain, that’s just one of a number of helpful uses (…and an ENTIRELY different type of blog post). Obviously they are good for tight muscles, but I also use mine on my temples, scalp and occipital bulge (the bumps where your neck attaches to your skull) during the worst of my migraines.

There are tons of different models with different variations: these hardcore Theraguns, which I’ve never tried but have a friend who swears by. The best hardcore “personal massager” brand is the Hitachi Magic Wand, which is strong enough that it has therapeutic uses outside of getting off.

I personally have this off-brand massager, but I really like that you can change out the “business end” (wow, there’s no way to say that without sounding gross)… anyway, like you see in the pic to the right, it’s got all these different heads on it that you can switch out depending on what you’re using it for. (I wish I could embed this video of it, as it’s a damn party groove.)

Heat it up

Back buddy heating pad

All heating pads are not created equal: so-called “moist heat” is a lot more effective for pain than the dry heat of an electric blanket or something. Bed Buddy is a brand of heat pack filled with organic materials that you throw in the microwave for a couple of minutes. In my experience, they last for years and are massively helpful for sore, tight muscles. They even offer them with built-in aromatherapy, if that’s your jam. 

Stretch it out

Woman helping man stretch using resistance bands

There are all sorts of exercises you can do with resistance bands— if you’ve done physical therapy recently, they may have sent you home with some. But if nothing else, they’re fantastic for stretching. That’s why I recommend everybody have at least one resistance band– when you’re feeling stiff, it really helps you stretch out tight muscles. 

vive calf stretcher
Vive Calf Stretcher

The last time I went to physical therapy they had this little plastic thing called a foot rocker that made stretching tight calf and leg muscles SO easy that I went home and immediately bought one for myself.

It also came with a spiky ball that is absolutely perfect for working out knots in your feet– when my plantar fasciitis is bugging me, this is the first thing I grab. (It also includes an app, which I didn’t know about until three seconds ago when I went looking for that link.)

Grab it

the HMS Grabber reacher being used by a person in a wheelchair to pick up keys
The Grabber in use

A couple of years ago my L5-S1 herniated and i was taken to the hospital screaming, and eventually underwent an emergency laminectomy. I was sent home with a corset brace that supported my back but didn’t let me bend over (not like I would have been able to bend over without it, because of the pain). As goofy as it looks, a little grabbermajig like this turned out to be incredibly helpful.

Every little bit of independence is worth it. This article, “Three Things To Consider Before Buying A Grabbing Tool,” goes through different options that specialize in long reach, firm grasp or great value. I ended up buying a “featherweight” model that did everything I needed it to.

For a fancier model with a rotating head and a bunch of other options, take a gander at this demonstration video for the RMS Grabber Reacher — the grabber is illustrated with CGI and there’s an inspiring soundtrack that swells like the moment in a Disney movie where the hero triumphantly decides to fight on the side of good or whatever.

Step it up

stepper
Woman uses stepper

Getting regular exercise can be incredibly difficult with chronic pain– no matter how much you rationally know it will help in the long term, when you’re just struggling to get through the day it can be hard to force yourself to do something that’s only going to make you feel worse in the short term. (Damn you, pain cycle!) I live in Texas, land of “nine months of summer per year,” and if it’s hard to exercise regularly, it’s way harder when it’s 100 degrees outside by 11 am.

Enter the stepper! I like to hop on it while watching something and zone out. I have the model on the left, which has stretchy resistance bands you can use with your arms, but you can also get a version that has a handle if you’re more concerned about ergonomics or need extra support. (Of course you could buy a stairmaster or a treadmill, if that’s your price point, but until I got this as a gift I had no idea that $50-$100 could buy me something that’s just as good).

Mobilize it (& work on that chi)

man lying down uses chi machine

I hate the name of these things–“chi machines”– because I feel like whatever it does for your “chi” is a lot less important than what it does for your muscles and joint mobility. You lie on the ground, put your feet in the little foot slots, and then turn it on so that it’s gently moving your legs from side to side with a swimming or wavelike motion. Note: START SLOW! This is one of those electronics where there are some really crappy knockoffs out there. The bare minimum you need is that your chi machine has a speed controller, and has soft footrests instead of hard plastic. This is the exact model I own and it’s served me well for…. eight years? Dang.

Massage it yourself

Man uses orange thera cane

For real y’all: get yourself a dang Thera cane. I’m legitimately sad that I didn’t hear about these amazing things until just a couple of years ago. A Thera cane is a plastic doohickey (technical term) that looks like the kind of old-timey exaggerated cane that would be used in a cartoon to pull someone offstage when they’re bombing in front of a crowd.

You can use it to massage out knots anywhere on your entire body, by yourself, no matter where it is. As someone who lives alone it’s absolutely invaluable for those can’t-reach knots in my shoulders.

Pro tip: you can put Icy Hot, essential oils or whatever you want on the knobs too! Seriously, the basic model and one that comes apart for ease of transport are both under $30. I just have a basic blue one and it has been a huge help to me; I can’t recommend this gift enough.

Prop it up with a lap desk

Lap desk with pillow & wrist cushions, used by someone reading book

Lap desks are important for anyone who spends a lot of time in bed or on the couch with their computer. It serves a number of purposes: it keeps your computer stable as you shift around under it, it raises it up and tilts to make the whole process more ergonomic (I particularly like models that also have a wrist cushion, like this one).

Another similar option is what’s called a lap table or bed table. It’s like a lap desk with legs; it reminds me of those trays that you see people on TV serving breakfast in bed on. Most lap desks have foldable legs that allow it to transform into a more normal lap desk, though without the cushioned bottom. There’s a huge range of options, from the most simple— a horizontal surface with folding legs– to the extremely complex, with cool materials, adjustable angles, integrated fans, and a hundred other little cool tweaks.

Soak it

shea butter moisturizing epsom salt

Three words: epsom salt baths. Epsom salt baths are a type of complementary medicine that actually works for me, and I know other people who swear by it (I recommend this stuff so often that the people in my chronic pain group are probably sick of hearing about it.). If you have super tight muscles and achy joints, it can really make a difference. On one hand, I have found a ton of personal relief from epsom salt baths and have had medical professionals explain how they work… on the other hand, I just this minute discovered that there’s not a ton of evidence actually supporting its efficacy for pain relief.

All I can say is that I can personally tell a noticeable difference in how I feel getting out of a regular bath vs an epsom salt bath, but take my opinion with a grain of [epsom] salt (sorry, sorry, i’m trying to delete it). Anyway, regular epsom salt does the trick, but you can also buy versions scented with lavender, eucalyptus, and other calming scents, a special moisturizing formula with shea butter, and more.

What other stuff should I include on next year’s gift guide for chronic pain?

I know I’m almost certainly forgetting nine million great doohickeys, thingamajigs and whatchamacallits. Leave a comment or give me a shout on social media and tell me what I need to add to the gift guide for next year!

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