Since the alarming epidemic of pain medication overdoses and devastating addiction in the past decade, people are returning to ancient non-drug pain management strategies that served well in the management of pain long before the introduction of drugs. The industrial revolution created a culture in which people were beginning to value money and productivity above physical health, emotional well-being, and even above relationships. A demand for instant gratification increased, and pharmaceutical science met that demand with an increasing array of pills to bypass the more time-consuming non-pharmaceutical efforts that people could take to do things like effectively manage pain and to treat depression and anxiety. Our culture is now returning to those approaches in pain management and other areas since there are only positive side-effects.
Most chronic illnesses involve some physical pain, so we will explore some of the non-drug strategies used to manage pain. These strategies can assist in the treatment of acute pain, but are highly effective in the management of chronic pain.
Treatment of acute pain needs to be addressed by competent physicians who can treat and attempt to heal the physical pathology that is generating the pain. Most often, pain medications in combination with other treatments are the best approach for accute pain. A modest percentage of the population can even use opioid pain medication as part of an ongoing regimen to manage chronic pain without developing tolerance (a need for increasing amounts of medication to achieve relief). However, anyone runs the risk of developing physical tolerance of the medication (both opioids and benzodiazepines), and therefore the risk of addiction which can lead to fatal overdose. There are also good pain medications that are non-addictive, or have a very low risk of addiction.
When pain persists after the treatment of the physical pathology, the chronic pain needs to be addressed on a daily basis with strategies that require some effort and time.
One strategy that is being researched increasingly is related to the picture above. Recent research shows that the presence of a dog releases pain-relieving chemicals (such as oxytocin) in humans which assist in the relief of pain. The little dog above (Kelani) actually detects the area of pain on my arm, and either lies against it, or licks it (I prefer the former). (Warning: Dogs are a very expensive and time-consuming form of pain-management.)
It has to also be mentioned that supportive human relationships are a tremendously satisfying way to help sooth both physical and emotional pain. It is also well-known that people who have found a spiritual connection* in life have not only relief of pain, but many have complete physical healing of the pathology.
The most researched non-drug treatment of chronic pain today is meditation. The most commonly practiced form of meditation involves simply closing your eyes while in a comfortable position in a quiet place, relaxing the muscles, and focusing thoughts on a peaceful scene and comforting words and/or affirmations. This form of meditation is reported by patients to be highly effective at easing and managing pain, depression, and anxiety. It is also highly effective in clearing the mind for problem-solving and for creativity.
Another form of meditation that has been receiving the most attention by medical researchers in recent years is called mindfulness meditation. It is based upon an ancient Buddhist practice and is very simple, yet extremely effective for treatment of pain, depression, and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation harnesses the power of the mind. To practice mindfulness: 1.Sit quietly, and focus Only on the Present; simply notice your breathing but do not try to control it in any way. 2.Take a Non-judgmental attitude toward any thought or emotion that occurs to you and do not try to control it. Just come back to the present moment anytime your thoughts wander into the past or future. 3.Start with about a 10-minute session each day, then over about a 2-week period, gradually increase to 30 to 60 minutes a day. Practice daily. The pain-relief is usually noticed anywhere from a few days later to a week or two later. An increased sense of well-being is usually reported immediately.
Addressing the emotional pain that has either exacerbated the pain, or has become a side-effect of physical pain must be addressed. I have had scores of chronic pain patients report that simply opening up about the emotional pain the they have been carrying around for years (loss, trauma, shame, fear, etc.) relieved a significant amount of their physical pain. Counseling or psychotherapy, especially Cognitive Behavior Therapy (reprogramming dysfunctional thinking) needs to accompany any pain-management strategy.
Hypnosis has been used for years to treat chronic pain. I have had patients cancel invasive orthopedic surgery after the relief they experienced after simply one session of hypnosis. Hypnosis taps into the power of the subconscious mind where there are infinite healing resources, as yet unexplored.
Music can be a very helpful adjunct in the soothing of pain. Many people report a somewhat hypnotic effect from simply listening to music. There is music specifically written to tap into this phenomena. Some classical pieces have this effect on people, and much of what is categorized as meditation or yoga music is used for soothing pain.
The more commonly used interventions of pain are still considered excellent strategies alone, or in combination with other methods: Physical therapy; biofeedback; yoga; acupuncture; use of hot or cold compresses; and TENS units (small electronic devices that stimulate the nerves).
Make sure you are taking advantage of these practices that can help make your life with chronic illness easier and more enjoyable physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Also, remember that You are a significant part of the healing of other people.
Christopher Knippers, Ph.D. September 21, 2016
*(Recommended writers/researchers on spirituality in physical healing: Larry Dossey; Edgar Cayce; Andrew Newberg; Scott McDermott; Michael Baime; Richard Davidson.)