Treating chronic pain is a complex issue, because there are a number of factors that contribute to its development and persistence. Contrary to popular belief, most instances of chronic pain dont actually originate in the muscles, bones, and tissues, but rather in the nerves. This means that using a natural approach that incorporates eating foods, taking herbs, and using nutrients and other modalities to promote central nervous system health may be the best approach to treating chronic pain naturally.
Treating Chronic Pain Naturally
There are several myths about chronic pain. They are as follows:
- If you cant find the exact cause of your pain, then it must be in your head.
- If you look healthy, you cant be in pain.
- If you have failed to control your pain in the past, then you will fail now.
- Chronic pain is the only reason for all of the problems you have.
- Chronic pain treatment should be effective within a short period of time.
- You should expect that one day your pain will be completely cured.
- Your pain will improve if you remain inactive and avoid all physical activity.
- Pain reduced through stress management techniques is imaginary pain.
- You must have complete control over everything in your life.
- To consider yourself worthwhile, you must be able to function in the same way you did before your pain.
Chronic pain is the result of a vicious cycle of factors feeding into each other. These factors are anxiety (health worries, covering work), sleeping problems (family and relationship issues, sexual concerns, medication worries), not coping with stress (financial worries, anger and frustration from doctor and hospital visits), and increased pain as a result (lack of enjoyment), which feeds back into the cycle.
We can all think of obvious causes of pain, such as arthritis, back issues, cancer, headaches, muscle pain, sciatica, shingles, surgical pain, and injury. But there are additional, perhaps less obvious, causes as well. These include chronic infection, such as from Lyme disease, mono, HPV, Candida and yeast infections. Autoimmune diseases, in which the body is attacking its own tissues as if they were foreign, often cause pain. These are conditions like RA, lupus, Hashimotos, celiac disease, Crohns, ulcerative colitis, and Sjogrens. Chronic stress plays its role, as it depresses the immune system. Poor circulation can cause inflammation markers to build up, and can prevent the immune system from getting into an area and fighting an infection, if present. Food sensitivities, leaky gut, and intestinal parasites also often cause pain in one or more areas of the body. Certainly hormonal imbalances, such as too much estrogen or not enough progesterone, and brain chemistry imbalances like low serotonin or dopamine can cause pain. This is why depression actually hurts, and anxiety can cause stomach pain, as most of our serotonin is made in the gut.
The most commonly used medications to treat chronic pain are Morphine, Vicodin, Oxycodone, Aspirin, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, and steroids like Prednisone. Drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen are cheap and easy to get, and most people believe they arent harmful, but they do have very serious side effects. Theyve been shown to damage the stomach lining and cause ulcers, gastritis, bleeding, decreased protein absorption, and even cause food sensitivities. They also damage the liver and kidneys, and increase certain types of cancer.
We will discuss natural pain alternatives, but at the core of any healthful plan lies diet and lifestyle. We should always strive to let food be our medicine. Will a healthy diet un-herniate a disc or grow back worn-down bone? Of course not. But it will reduce the cause of pain, which is inflammation and the pain-signaling pathway. Foods CAN be inflammatory! Processed foods, junk food, greasy/fatty foods, trans fats, refined white sugar, flour and rice, and food sensitivities all scientifically increase the inflammation pathway, and PAIN. We want to reduce our intake of these processed foods. Not only do they contain sugar and additives, hormones, or are GMO, but most are loaded with omega-6 fats, which cause inflammation. They also decrease our good omega-3 fatty acids.
Sugar is the number one most inflammatory food ingredient on the planet! In fact, one teaspoon of sugar will decrease the immune systems function for five hours! I teach my patients how to identify sugars on a label, and how to incorporate those anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that are so helpful for inflammation. Fish can be a great source, but some are heavily loaded with mercury, and others arent very high in omega 3s. You will learn how to adopt a well-rounded, nutrient-rich diet thats highly anti-inflammatory. Food sensitivities can be tested for and addressed as well. Other diet and lifestyle factors to consider are lowering cholesterol, blood sugars, increasing fiber, moderate alcohol intake, and physical activity.
Fish oil has been shown to break down inflammatory chemicals. In one study, 40% of RA patients taking cod liver oil every day were able to cut their medication use by more than one-third! For neck and back pain, after ten weeks, nearly two-thirds were able to stop taking their pain reliever all together. But not all fish oil is created equally! And higher doses are usually needed. Consult with an NMD to discuss what is most appropriate for your condition. Sulphur-rich foods have been shown to soften scar tissue, improve blood supply to the affected area, and reduce muscle spasms and inflammation. These include onions, garlic, chives, scallions, crucifers like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts.
Some of the most powerful anti-inflammatory and pain-reducers are herbs. In fact, most medications come from these herbs. Turmeric is one of the most profound, strongest anti-inflammatory herbs we have. It can be used for RA, OA trauma, injury, cancer, heart disease, and many more illnesses. Its an antioxidant, improves digestion, protects the liver, detoxifies us, is antibacterial, and helps prevent blood clotting. Kava kava is very effective for pain that has an anxiety component. It eases the nerves, is anti-depressant, relaxes muscles, spasms, and helps with headaches and IBS. Willow bark is what Aspirin is made from. Its been used for thousands of years to treat back pain, arthritis, headaches, bursitis and tendonitis. It may not work as quickly as Aspirin, but it provides longer-lasting benefits without the harmful side effects. Devils Claw is an African herb used to relieve arthritis, low back, knee, and hip pain. In studies it was shown to relieve chronic pain in as little as ten days without any side effects.
Some of you may be familiar with essential oils. These are potent essences of herbs and plants that are traditionally used as pain relievers. For painful or swollen joints, any of the following may be helpful: pine, lavender, peppermint, cinnamon, rose, clove, frankincense, rosemary, ginger, juniper, bay and birch. Just put 10-12 drops of any one of these into one ounce of a carrier oil like olive or coconut, and rub into swollen or painful joints.
There are far too many nutrients and minerals to mention that are related to pain and inflammation, but some worth noting are magnesium, SAM-e, vitamin D, and MSM. Magnesium actually blocks pain receptors in the spine, and can be helpful with post-operative pain. A magnesium deficiency is a common magnifier of pain. Its critical for relaxing muscles, maximizing blood flow to muscles and delivering nutrients to cells. When low, it causes muscle spasms, cramping, and poor blood flow. SAM-e is an amino acid shown to be great for osteoarthritis and depression. It eases pain, reduces stiffness and swelling as effectively as pain relievers. Studies showed that it squashed pain by 50% after two months, though it took a few weeks to kick in, and had no cardiovascular risks or digestive side effects. SAM-e can interact with other meds, especially antidepressants. Its vital that you speak with a naturopath before taking it. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to a host of chronic illness, autoimmunity, cancer, osteoporosis, and chronic pain. A 2009 study found that people deficient in vitamin D require almost twice as much pain medication! And MSM helps to prevent joint and cartilage degeneration. People with osteoarthritis of the knee who took MSM has 25% less pain and 30% better physical function at the end of three months.
A study at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center found that acupuncture relieves chronic pain better than standard medical care. In 18,000 patients, there was clear evidence that acupuncture relieved chronic back, neck and shoulder pain, headaches, and arthritic pain. On average, there was a 50% drop in pain. Its also wonderful for autoimmune conditions, fibromyalgia, migraines, and can assist with emotional pain syndromes like PTSD, anxiety and depression.
Research is uncovering the fact that anxiety and depression are not responses to pain, but are the consequences of it. Pain and depression share the same neural pathways, the same circuitry. Serotonin and the endorphins help modulate depression. Chronic pain uses up serotonin like a car running out of gas. Depression and stressful events can enhance pain, and chronic pain sufferers usually respond to stress with more pain. There are very effective, natural alternatives to antidepressants that work to modulate these serotonin levels, without the side effects of drugs. To that end, relaxation therapies are vitally important to those with pain. Meditation, deep breathing and visualizations can all be utilized for pain relief. Gentle, low-impact exercise like walking, gardening, swimming, yoga, tai chi, and Qi gong are also incredibly helpful. Exercise releases feel-good, mood-enhancing, anesthetizing chemicals like endorphins, and helps to keep our body limber, flexible and pain-free.
As you can see, chronic pain is complicated, and requires a completely holistic approach in order to assess and address all of the potential causes, as well as to treat the whole person dealing with it. You can promote nervous system health and decrease your pain naturally with excellent education by a naturopath, who will teach you how to eat, think and move, and who will be patient enough to help you get to where you want to be.
Article contributed by Dr. Michelle Retz