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Pain can have a profound impact on all aspects of our lives. If it’s painful to stand up or walk, we become sedentary. If the left leg hurts, we favor the right. A serious migraine can put us out of commission for hours or days.
Over time, pain can have a cumulative, negative effect on our lives, sometimes leading to even more pain. Favoring one side can alter body mechanics. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to weight gain and metabolic dysfunction.
The truth is a lot of us are in pain — Tylenol and Advil are the most commonly used (and abused) drugs in the United States. While taking a pill may seem like the best way to reduce pain, we may only be kicking the can down the road. The pain comes back and we take another pill; a cycle that can continue for years without ever addressing the root causes.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be trapped. If we look beyond medical orthodoxy, we can find a number of pain solutions that are neither toxic nor habit-forming.
1. Eat well
One of the main sources of pain is inflammation, so it’s important to eliminate inflammatory foods. These include refined sugars and grains, processed foods, dairy and anything fried.
On the other hand, there are many foods that can counter inflammation, such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables, which tend to be rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I also recommend lean proteins, whole grains and lots of water. Hydration can help the body flush out toxins, which again can lead to inflammation.
2. Calm the mind
How we live — and how we think about it — can have a big impact on pain. In response to stress, our bodies generate cortisol, adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones which can exacerbate pain perception. These stress hormones are meant to get us away from the attacking tiger, but wreak havoc on our bodies with constant stress signaling.
We can help overcome these stress responses through exercise and meditation. Again, by reducing the inflammatory chemicals in the body, we reduce potential triggers for chronic pain.
3. Hands-on therapies
How the body is aligned, both physically and energetically, can also influence pain. There are a number of therapies that have been shown to reduce discomfort. Some you will be familiar with, others may be new to you.
Acupuncture and acupressure have become increasingly popular in recent years and with good reason — they really help. Acupuncture uses small needles to control pain. How these needles work depends on your point of view. Traditionally, acupuncture is used to release blocked energy. However, there’s evidence that the practice also releases neurotransmitters that can help reduce pain. No matter how you frame it, acupuncture can be quite effective.
Acupressure is acupuncture without the needles. Practitioners use manual pressure at acupuncture points to provide relief. The same mechanisms apply — energy and endorphins. But again, this can be a very useful way to defeat pain.
In craniosacral therapy, practitioners manipulate the skull to enhance circulation and increase relaxation. During treatments, practitioners gently massage bones, tendons and other tissues. The goal is to improve the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.
We often think of massage as a fun activity, but it can also provide genuine health benefits. A therapeutic massage enhances relaxation, improves circulation and reduces stress and the associated inflammatory hormones.
Frequency specific microcurrent (FSM) uses electricity to stimulate healing. This therapy can actually adjust the body’s electrical systems on the cellular level and is widely used to treat chronic pain.
I incorporate all of these healing modalities in my clinic, where I have seen their immense benefit across many different chronic conditions.
4. Reduce pain with exercise
Don’t let pain stop you from exercising. Gentle exercise is one of the best ways to manage pain. It promotes circulation, stimulates endorphin release, strengthens muscles and tendons and enhances mood and sense of well-being. But it needs to be done wisely. I recommend either simple walking in nature, yoga, qigong or tai chi practices, or swimming. Many communities have a public pool, often with water aerobics classes designed for people who need a bit of guidance in their routine.
5. The botanical connection to pain reduction
There are many vitamins, minerals and herbs that are known to reduce pain. These provide excellent alternatives to over-the-counter and prescription medications.
- Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid have shown benefits in diabetic neuropathy.
- Boswellia, also known as Indian frankincense, can be taken as a supplement or applied topically to reduce inflammation and pain.
- An active ingredient in spicy peppers, capsaicin is often used in topical pain creams. The compound works by interacting with TRPV1 channels, which control how we perceive pain.
- Ginger root can both reduce inflammation and increase circulation and is often used to treat joint pain. There are many ways to take it: powdered capsules, tea or by incorporating the aromatic fresh root or dried root powder into meals.
- Magnesium is an essential mineral, performing many functions. From a pain standpoint, it controls NMDA, a neurochemical. Magnesium relaxes muscles and improves circulation. You can take orally or add Epsom salts to your bathwater.
- Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory spice that supports circulation, detoxification, immunity and tissue repair. You can find turmeric in capsules, powder or simply buy the whole root.
- Vitamin B is known for its ability to help reduce diabetic nerve pain.
- Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and contributes to healthy connective tissue.
- Vitamin D has been associated with chronic pain. One study found that patients with a vitamin D deficiency had to use significantly more pain medication to achieve the same relief.
An emerging body of published research has identified a major culprit; the development of fibrosis or excessive scar tissue that can build up in the joints, limiting mobility and contributing to chronic stiffness and pain seen very graphically in rheumatoid arthritis, and causes chronic stiffness and pain.
The formation of fibrosis has been shown to be driven by a protein called galectin-3. Excessive levels of galectin-3 in the body have been implicated in arthritis as well as many other conditions.
In my practice I recommend for patients struggling with arthritis or other pain to control their galectin-3 levels with modified citrus pectin (MCP). Derived from the pith of citrus peels, MCP has a unique ability to enter the circulation and bind to galectin-3, inhibiting the damaging effects of this “rogue protein.” MCP also safely detoxifies heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic, which can accumulate in joints and tissues.
Another promising approach is to use botanical medicine to decrease stress and anxiety, with the idea that this can reduce pain perception. There are a number of herbs classically used for calming and relaxation, including valerian, passionflower, and hops among others.
In traditional Chinese Medicine, magnolia bark, Magnolia officinalis, has long been used for this purpose. In modern times, honokiol, one of the main active ingredients in the bark, is being used successfully to encourage relaxation and a healthy mood. It acts on the GABA receptors in the brain and elsewhere in the body. GABA is one of the primary calming neurotransmitters. Honokiol also has antioxidant effects, an added benefit in promoting the health of injured tissues.
There are times when a pharmaceutical drug is the best way to treat pain. But it’s important to remember that these aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions, and there are many alternatives. The problem with drug therapy is that it does not address any of the root causes, such as inflammation, that might be causing the pain.
That is why holistic therapies are often the best approaches. By integrating lifestyle adjustments, meditation, manual therapies and select supplements, we can tackle some of the issues that are actually causing the pain, avoid overusing painkillers and simply live better.