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According to estimates from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than 25 million Americans live with chronic pain daily, and more than 40 million adults experience severe pain levels. Whether chronic pain arises from an initial injury or an ongoing illness, the sufferer wants and needs effective means of alleviating pain and restoring function. Far too often, however, prescription painkiller use extends well beyond what’s medically necessary to combat pain, and may turn to opioid abuse, dependence and addiction involving illegal drugs. With the exploding opioid crisis, a great deal of ongoing research and funding is devoted to finding other effective pain management methods. As a result, today there are numerous alternative and holistic methods for managing pain without opiates.
ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY (ACT)
Researchers at Kings College London examined the benefits of a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for patients with chronic pain. The study’s corresponding author said that ACT “focuses on building effective patterns of behavior change rather than symptom reduction.”
Performed for thousands of years, the practice of acupuncture to relieve pain and help restore bodily function has its adherents, many of whom say they’ve been helped by this alternative therapy. Acupuncture, a key component of Chinese medicine, involves the insertion of tiny, sterile metallic needles by hand or electrical stimulation. Research into its effectiveness in pain relief is ongoing, although acupuncture may be effective for certain types of chronic pain, including low-back pain, knee and osteoarthritis pain, and neck pain.
A profession focused on the relationship of the body’s structure, although mostly the spine, and its functioning, chiropractic is another complementary treatment method to help alleviate chronic pain. Practitioners perform adjustments, called “manipulations,” along the spine and other parts of the body to not only relieve pain, but also to correct any alignment problems, improve bodily function, and help the body to heal itself. Those with chronic pain from whiplash-related injuries, low-back pain, pain from upper and lower joint conditions, and neck pain may benefit from chiropractic.
COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT)
The underlying premise of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, used to help combat chronic pain is that increased pain sensitivity can result from negative feelings that stem from unhelpful behaviors and thoughts. The therapy utilizes several strategies to help those with chronic pain (among other conditions, including substance abuse) more effectively cope with and manage pain, change their behaviors in responding to pain, and increase their self-confidence in being able to do so successfully.
It’s not necessary to train like you’re going to run a marathon, or to work yourself tirelessly at the gym pumping iron. Medical professionals treating chronic pain patients say that modest exercise can help alleviate pain while at the same time reducing depression and anxiety. Mood and physical capacity are beneficial in the short- and long-term with a regular physical exercise regimen. Research published in Arthritis Research & Therapy found that people who exercise regularly experience 25 percent less pain in their joints and muscles as they get older than their less-active counterparts.
Chronic low-back pain affects millions of Americans. No wonder the search for effective ways to overcome the often-debilitating pain is a near-constant pursuit for those who suffer from it, as well as their loved ones and family members. Researchers studying the effectiveness of massage therapy using structural massage or relaxation massage or usual care (medication, back exercises, education, other forms of physical therapy) found greater improvements in the massage groups in
“disability and bothersomeness of symptoms”. A recently-released extensive study charting the use of complementary and alternative medicine in 20 European countries found that of study respondents, one in four used such treatments in the past year. The most widely-used approach was massage, especially for those experiencing back and neck pain.
Coping with pain through meditation may sound too good to be true, but researchers using magnetic resonance imaging in a small study found that after just 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation instruction, participants subjected to painful stimuli were able to dramatically reduce the experience of pain and pain-related activation in the brain. A study published in The Journal of Pain showed that patients with chronic neck pain benefitted from meditation, experiencing pain relief and better coping with pain.
Prefer a more natural, holistic approach to pain management? Naturopathic care may provide the approach you seek and could be beneficial in assisting you to learn other ways to reduce or cope with chronic pain than relying on medications. Indeed, the foundation of naturopathic medicine is an emphasis on a holistic approach and natural treatments to target chronic pain. Using a combination of dietary recommendations, nutritional supplements, and botanical medicines to assist in healing inflammation and associated pain, naturopaths also work with conventional and other alternative medical professionals as needed to arrive at a personalized plan of care. Exercise, rehabilitation, and mind-body approaches are also included in a tailored naturopathic treatment plan.
For those suffering chronic pain, the importance of nutrition cannot be emphasized enough. Many nutritionists who work with chronic pain clientele say that a protein-rich diet that’s low in carbohydrates and sugars. Protein decreases inflammation, a key contributor to chronic pain. Many of the foods that are high in protein, such as fish and green vegetables, also contain anti-inflammatory agents. Researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Arizona and Brunswick labs found that tart red cherries, another nutritional food choice, reduce inflammation and cardiovascular risk. Working with a nutritionist can help you map out a healthy diet to chip away at your chronic pain.
Successful pain management often involves some form of physical therapy, also called rehabilitation therapy. Physical, occupational and recreational therapy are three forms of this approach. The focus is to reduce pain through a regular program of physical exercise that includes aerobic, strengthening and flexibility exercises. The physical therapist may use other integrative approaches in addition to exercise, such as massage, chiropractic, and biofeedback. Cognitive-behavioral therapy in conjunction with exercise may help chronic pain patients reduce stress, recognize how stressful thoughts contribute to pain, and learn how to change those thoughts to better manage the pain.
With its roots in ancient Indian philosophy, yoga is a mind-body practice that may help those with chronic low-back and neck pain to find relief. Get a recommendation for a yoga practitioner from your medical professional, health care provider or a local hospital. In addition, do some research to determine which type of yoga is best for your chronic pain condition. Remember that poses can and should be modified to adjust to your abilities, experience and needs.
The determination of which, if any, alternative, complementary or holistic methods to use to manage pain without resorting or relying on opioids should be made in concert with your health-care provider. The likelihood is that a variety of approaches may be recommended to help with the specific type of pain experienced, its severity, duration and other medical and mental health conditions. Consider that alleviating chronic pain requires a commitment to learning and embracing healthier lifestyle choices, takes time to see results, and a willingness to be flexible enough to modify non-opioid pain management options as appropriate.
American Chronic Pain Association, “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).” Retrieved October 18, 2017
Medical News Today, “New form of CBT may help with chronic pain management.” Retrieved October 19, 2017
Medscape, “Modest Exercise Helps Chronic Pain Patients.” Retrieved October 18, 2017
Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, “New studies link antioxidant-rich tart cherries to a healthy heart.” Retrieved October 19, 2017
NIH, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “Massage Therapy Holds Promise for Low-Back Pain.” Retrieved October 18, 2017
Psychology Today, “Nutrition and Chronic Pain.” Retrieved October 19, 2017 from
The Clinical Journal of Pain, “Evaluation of Group and Individual Change in a Multidisciplinary Pain Management Program.” Retrieved October 18, 2017
The Journal of Pain, “Effectiveness of Jyoti Meditation for Patients With Chronic Neck Pain and Psychological Distress – A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial.” Retrieved October 19, 2017
The Journal of Pain, “Predictors of Treatment Outcome in Contextual Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies for Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review.” Retrieved October 19, 2017