Like many Americans, you may be personally familiar with medications for pain relief, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen and/or opioids like oxycontin, morphine and codeine. Many of these medications are very effective for pain, but they can come with unwanted side effects, and in addition, some of them are potentially very addictive. Fortunately, there are options for dealing with pain — even chronic pain — that are all-natural that don’t involve the use of possibly dangerous substances. Here are some of them:
Good for dealing with: surgery-related discomfort, neck pain, fibromyalgia, tension headaches, osteoarthritis and back pain.
Explanation: “Massage therapy has been shown to boost levels of endorphins and serotonin — the body’s natural painkillers and mood regulators — and to reduce stress hormone levels,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, the director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine.
There’s some evidence that massage works at a molecular level, where it can help to switch genes associated with inflammation on and off. It’s also shown promise for post-operative therapy. “We’ve conducted a number of studies on massage as a treatment for pain following surgery,” says Brent Bauer, the director of Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “In each of these studies we’ve been able to demonstrate statistically significant reductions in pain, along with significant reductions in anxiety.”
2. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Good for dealing with: stress, which worsens many types of pain
Explanation: “In terms of mind-body management, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is probably the approach that works best for chronic pain,” states Daphne Miller, MD, a private-practice integrative physician in San Francisco. For people whose pain is body-wide, CBT is actually significantly more effective than many standard treatments, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Stress reduction and lifestyle changes not only reduce pain, but they can help you deal with the symptoms of the condition when they appear.
Good for dealing with: rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, tension headaches, migraines and chronic back pain.
Explanation: Acupuncture, the centuries-old practice of inserting tiny needles at specific points on the body, is one part of a total medical protocol focusing on the correction of energy imbalances — known as chi, or qi. “I have been using acupuncture for the last 25 years with incredible effects. Not only does it help with pain but often — and more importantly — it improves functioning of the nervous system and musculoskeletal system, which is often the cause of the pain,” says Frank Lipman, MD, the founder of New York’s Eleven Eleven Wellness. Even the Mayo Clinic has begun to incorporate acupuncture for pain management into programs for some patients.
Good for dealing with: migraines, arthritis and lower back pain.
Explanation: More than 20 million Americans currently practice some form of yoga, partially because it assists with relaxation. But new research shows that yoga can also help with pain reduction. In a recent study in the journal Spine, people who were suffering lower back pain who practiced yoga twice weekly observed a 42 percent reduction in pain and a 46 percent reduction in depressive symptoms. There’s now growing evidence that suggests that yoga can help with enhancing the body’s stress-coping mechanisms, which are crucial for making pain symptoms feel less taxing. The American Pain Foundation now recommends yoga for treating lower back pain.
5. Hypnosis/Guided Imagery
Good for dealing with: fibromyalgia and lower back pain
Explanation: Although it may sound kooky, the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians now recommend hypnotherapy for treating lower back pain. “Hypnotherapy is used to induce a state of consciousness marked by deep relaxation yet increased intensity of awareness. It’s often likened to daydreaming,” says the University of Arizona’s Dr. Andrew Weil. A hypnotherapist guides you to focus on the suggestion of healing and pain relief.
Another method, called guided imagery, is sometimes considered to be a form of hypnosis. In a guided imagery session, you concentrate on images that are capable of creating physiological change in the body, including pain relief.
Good for dealing with: symptom management and pain reduction
Explanation: Recent studies show that meditation can help with chronic pain. The Mayo Clinic has reported some success using the technique for pain management. The are many books and articles you can read on meditation, but if you want to try it, here’s a method called the “4-7-8 breath.” Here’s a quick sample:
a. Lie or sit in a comfortable and relaxed position, and put the tip of your tongue behind your upper teeth.
b. Exhale only through your mouth by making a “whooshing” sound.
c. Close your mouth, and quietly inhale through your nose, counting to four as you do so.
d. Hold your breath and count to seven.
e. Exhale only through your mouth while counting to eight.
f. Inhale and repeat the above three times.
7. Tai chi and Qigong
Good for dealing with: fibromyalgia, lower back pain and arthritis
Explanation: Tai chi and qigong, which are slow-motion forms of martial arts, may be as effective as medicinal pain killers, according to new studies. After practicing qigong, women with fibromyalgia reported a reduction in pain, according to a study at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In another study at the University of Maryland, patients who combined qigong with meditation reduced their pain as effectively as prescription drugs did after just two treatments. And according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, fibromyalgia patients can benefit from tai chi. Researchers say tai chi benefits musculoskeletal pain; however, the underlying mechanisms for this are not yet fully understood.
8. Herbal Remedies
Good for dealing with: reduction of inflammation, which can worsen many types of pain
Explanation: Research is still ongoing, and anyone desiring to use herbal remedies should consult with a physician or licensed naturopath before beginning their treatment. But many doctors have found that patients are able to experience pain relief via the daily consumption of anti-inflammatory spices along with Omega-3 fish oil supplements.
“The three main supplements I use for pain are fish oils and turmeric — which are both anti-inflammatory — as well as vitamin D,” says Eleven Eleven Wellness’ Frank Lipman, MD. Some studies show that fish oil can reduce pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Physician Daphne Miller in San Francisco is an advocate of using turmeric. “Take two teaspoons of turmeric and one teaspoon of grated ginger per day, with a little black pepper to help absorption; it works as a natural alternative to ibuprofen and is great for achy joints. I make a smoothie in the morning with mango, turmeric and ginger,” she says.
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