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Ask an N.D.: Nondrug Solutions for Chronic Pain
Pain is a nervous system sensation that typically indicates injury and is short-lived. Chronic pain is different in that the pain persists for longer lengths of time from weeks to years.
Unfortunately, chronic pain affects a huge number of individuals – over 50 million in the United States. While chronic pain may be due to initial injury, it may also be the result of chronic illness such as cancer, arthritis or infection.
Frequent chronic pain conditions include low back pain, headache, joint pain, stomach pain, muscular pain, nerve pain and bone pain.
The Root of the Problem
Identifying the cause of the chronic pain is essential for successful treatment of symptoms and cure. It has been shown that individuals experiencing chronic pain may have lower than normal endorphin levels in their cerebral spinal fluid. Endorphins are chemicals that help reduce pain and enhance a sense of well being.
Occasionally the cause of chronic pain is difficult to identify. Psychogenic pain is a true physical pain thought to be caused by mental or emotional distress. Symptoms of psychogenic pain may be described in such terms as stinging, burning, aching, stabbing, throbbing, tingling, shooting, and intermittent. Over time, chronic pain can evolve into a mental/emotional problem; depression, anger, mood swings, insomnia and anxiety are commonly associated symptoms of the condition.
Complementary Treatment Approaches
Standard medical treatment of chronic pain may include prescription or over the counter analgesic (pain relieving) medication (NSAIDs, acetaminophen) or narcotics (sedatives, tranquilizers), acupuncture, electrical stimulation therapy, physical therapy and, in worst-case scenarios, surgery. On occasion, antidepressant medication may also be prescribed when chronic pain has led to an emotionally depressed state.
Counseling and relaxation techniques may also be recommended. Such techniques may include meditation, biofeedback, and visualization.
Acupuncture may help increase levels of endorphins in the spinal fluid. Also, electroacupuncture, where the needles are connected to an electrical stimulation machine, has been shown to successfully increase endorphin levels. Physical therapy and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) are commonly employed to help with musculoskeletal pain.
Complementary medicine practitioners may suggest all of the above in addition to chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation to help ease the pain and get to the root of the problem. The following herbal medicines and dietary supplements are also commonly prescribed to help ease and manage chronic pain:
- Magnesium is useful for muscle relaxation and mood elevation. A typical dose may be 800 milligrams daily.
- Bromelain, Boswellia serrata, Ginger, Turmeric, and White Willow Bark are all herbal medicines that help decrease inflammation and increase endorphin production, which in turn helps to decrease pain.
Topical Capsaicin (from Cayenne pepper) helps reduce aches and pain and is appropriate for use over joints and muscles. It is very useful for lingering nerve pain related to herpes zoster (shingles) but must never be applied over open wounds or cracked skin.
Essential fatty acids from flax seed oil or fish oils can help decrease inflammation. One to three grams daily is recommended.
When there is mental/emotional distress due to chronic pain, St. John’s wort (300 milligrams three times daily) may be considered.
S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e) is an amino acid compound that helps increase essential brain neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, which may ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Doses of 200-600 mg per day have been recommended for depression.
- Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the body. It is often used to help relieve symptoms of insomnia. One to three milligrams taken thirty minutes prior to bedtime is recommended.
A diet that focuses on anti-inflammatory foods is essential for those wanting to decrease pain due to chronic inflammation. This includes eliminating coffee (caffeine), alcohol, tobacco, sugar, fried foods, saturated fat, nitrates/nitrites, and sulfites.
Moderate exercise is recommended to help increase circulation and stimulate endorphin production. This can help elevate mood and possibly decrease pain.
Consult your doctor before using any health treatment — including herbal supplements and natural remedies — and tell your doctor if you have a serious medical condition or are taking any medications. The information presented here is for educational purposes only and is in no way intended as substitute for medical counseling.