Chronic pain affects about 1 in 5 people in the U.S., making it difficult if not impossible to work and enjoy family and social time.
If you have chronic pain — typically defined as longer than three months and not responding to treatment — your body hasn’t turned off the pain messages to the brain, even though the original source of the pain may be gone.
The pain may be linked to a condition such as arthritis, to a sprain or other injury, or to any number of more elusive causes.
While medications abound, some prefer more natural or holistic methods to quell the pain. Others find that medication doesn’t quite give them enough relief, and are looking for natural treatments to add on to their standard treatments or replace them.
Complicating the picture is that doctors still don’t understand chronic pain, but they do know that what works for one person may not work for another. So, in this case, try, try again is good advice.
Next time chronic pain is dragging you down, consider trying a more natural route to relief. And, because pain is individual, ask your doctor for specifics about these treatments, such as doses and time to continue trying them.
1. Exercise. “People who exercise and maintain a good aerobic condition will improve most pain conditions,” says Charles Kim, MD, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine and anesthesiology and a certified medical acupuncturist at Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Medical Center.
When we work out, he says, the body produces its own version of painkillers, such as endorphins, hormones that actually increase your pain threshold. Endorphins interact with brain receptors and can change our perception of pain.
When patients tell Dr. Kim they are in too much pain to exercise, he suggests they start slowly and do even a little burst of walking or other activity — then build up.
2. Fish Oil. Fish oil is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, and inflammation plays a large role in pain, says Michael Cronin, ND, a naturopathic physician in Scottsdale, Az., and immediate past president of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
In one study, researchers instructed patients with neck or back pain to take 1200 milligrams a day of fish oil supplements with eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid. After 75 days on fish oil, more than half of the 125 patients who reported back said they had stopped their prescription painkillers.
3. Turmeric. Also called Curcuma longa, turmeric is basically a root, Kim says. “It’s often found in spicy foods, very much in Indian cooking. Studies have shown it has definite anti-inflammatory properties.”
Researchers who tested a combination of turmeric with two other substances, Devil’s claw and bromelain, on patients with pain from osteoarthritis found the mixture gave noticeable pain relief. Patients took two 650-milligram capsules either two or three times a day.
4. Resveratrol. Found in red wine, grapes, and berries, resveratrol is known to have many beneficial effects, including anti-cancer, brain protective and even life-prolonging benefits.
Recently, researchers reported that the substance works on a cellular level for pain regulation.
5. Heat Therapy. Using heat as well as cold therapy are time-honored ways to quell pain, Dr. Cronin and Kim agree.
“Hot Epsom salt baths relax the mind and change the nervous input from the body to the brain,” Cronin says. “Using ice is a well-accepted modality that decreases inflammation locally.”
The key is to know when to use which.
“When you have an acute injury, put ice on it right away,” Kim says. For instance, you twist your ankle and it’s painful and swollen. Using heat in this situation will increase blood flow and increase the swelling, he says.
“If you have lingering back spasms, heat would be the best for that,” Kim says. He suggests taking a warm shower and massaging your neck or back (or whatever body part hurts) under the warm water.
6. Meditation. Meditation can quell pain, Kim says. While some people get anxious, thinking they have to do meditation a certain way, Kim tells them it’s just not true.
“Meditation is not scripted,” he says. While you can get instruction, you can also look up approaches and follow instructions, such as this information on the approach known as mindfulness meditation.
Researchers who assigned 109 patients with chronic pain to either a mindfulness meditation program or a wait list found that those who did the meditation reported more pain relief, as well as lower anxiety and depression and a better mental quality of life, than those who did not.