Tips for Managing Chronic Pain Non-Pharmacologically
For a great number of Americans with opiate and/or heroin addictions, the story of how they ended up hooked on painkillers begins with what was originally a legitimate medical need requiring pain relief:
- A young man with a bright future before him, and a college football scholarship to boot, experiences a sports injury, undergoes surgery, is prescribed prescription painkillers — and from there, the downward spiral begins.
- Or, a middle-aged woman with no prior addiction history experiences a serious car crash, turns to doctors for help managing her daily chronic pain, and within a certain period of time, is injecting heroin.
Such stories are common among opiate addicts, for whom narcotic painkillers seemed the quickest, easiest way to ease perceptions of pain and manage painful sensations. That makes today’s national opiate epidemic as much about the problem of pain, and how to treat pain, as a substance abuse issue.
Fortunately, new research has turned up some promising ways to treat and manage pain non-pharmacologically (without medication). For those with severe chronic pain issues, for whom less addictive painkilling medications may seem insufficient on their own to ease pain, these findings are good news. They suggest that when the following techniques belong to a holistic routine of self-care, one that may or may not also include a non-habit-forming medication for pain, abstinence from habit-forming opiates is achievable and not just a dreaded “pain in the neck.”
Meditation can sound intimidating — like just another skill you have to put long hours of training and wads of financial investment into in order to derive some benefit. Thankfully, that’s not the case, as a study at the University of North Carolina showed. Researchers there found that a “short” and “simple” meditation can have “a significant positive effect on pain management.” Just how short and simple? When study participants received one hour of meditation training spread out across only three consecutive days, they experienced a significant pain-relieving effect that was similar to that experienced by people who have spent years meditating. The short, simple meditation was effective at lowering even “high” levels of pain, and provided a pain-relieving effect that lasted beyond the delivery of the painful stimulus.
What about the mindfulness meditation worked to relieve pain, according to the researchers? Paying attention to current sensations rather than anticipating future pain or dwelling on the emotions caused by the pain, which in turn reduces anxiety.
Here is how one of the researchers explained the high pain relief effect of mindfulness meditation: “The mindfulness training taught … that distractions, feelings, emotions are momentary, don’t require a label or judgment because the moment is already over. With the meditation training they would acknowledge the pain, they realize what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present.”
The results of this study have been replicated elsewhere. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience pitted mindfulness meditation against morphine to see which intervention would provide stronger pain reduction. Mindfulness meditation won out, according to the study’s lead investigator.
Music Therapy and Music-Based Interventions
Music therapy is a therapeutic discipline that through clinical, evidence-based music interventions treats physical, psychological, cognitive and social functioning in clients with addiction and other disorders. New studies in neuroscience have found this form of therapy effective for relieving interrelated symptoms of chronic pain, perceptions of pain, anxiety and muscle tension in various medical and hospital settings. Still other studies have shown how music therapy has been effective in multiple medical procedures:
- effectively treating burn victims’ pain
- reducing anxiety and a need for sedation and analgesia during colonoscopy procedures
- reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol
- decreased physiological and psychological indicators of distress in perioperative patients and decreased pain and anxiety in postoperative patients
The music therapy protocol is designed to direct attention away from pain or anxiety, distract the listener, provide a stimulus for rhythmic, mindful breathing, change mood, focus on positive thoughts and feelings, and condition a deep relaxation response.
When taken together, what do these studies add up to? That mindfulness meditation and music therapy may not rid you entirely of your pain, but are indeed useful coping tools that can make your pain more manageable — and, in turn, less of a powerful relapse trigger for heroin and other opiates.