Natural pain relief: an alternative approach

Highlights from an ongoing educational series
February 13, 2018

"Everyone has a doctor in him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well." - Hippocrates

Chronic pain afflicts over 100 million people in the United States, diminishing their productivity and quality of life, with billions of dollars spent on medical management. However, we are fortunate to live in a time when compelling new paradigms for pain relief are finding believers in larger numbers than ever before. Among them: the mind-body connection, which has been acknowledged since the days of Hippocrates, but is just beginning to be realized for its power to eliminate pain and restore well-being.

Following is a look at some of the most effective natural and non-pharmaceutical paths to pain relief, from the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine to the healing properties of the arts.

Chinese medicine. We have much to learn from this centuries-old system of diagnosis and treatment, which includes:

Acupuncture, which works by applying needles, heat and pressure to specific points on the body to ease any blockages and redirect the vital life force known as chi or qui. According to the National Institutes of Health, studies suggest that acupuncture works to significantly reduce chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis and headaches, and improve functional mobility and quality of life. It is also being used as a complementary therapy to control painful symptoms in the treatment of cancer. Chinese herbs may also be part of the treatment, usually combined in formulas to enhance their individual properties and actions. Corydalis (Yan Hu Suo), the root of the Chinese poppy plant, relieves both inflammation and nerve pain. Eastern medicine uses it to ease pain caused by terminal cancer. Unlike opioids, your body does not build a tolerance to this natural compound, and because it does not affect morphine receptors, is not addictive.

Origins of healing. As practiced in India, Ayurvedic (a combination of Sanskrit words for life and science or knowledge) medicine is one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world. In fact, many Ayurvedic practices predate written records and were handed down by word of mouth. Ayurvedic medicine resonates with contemporary patients with concepts such as universal interconnectedness (among people, their health and the universe), the body's constitution (prakriti), and life forces (dosha), which are often compared to the biologic humors of the ancient Greek system. Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments, including compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients, and diet, exercise and lifestyle recommendations.

Mind-body therapies. Meditation, yoga, guided imagery and other stress management techniques may also help relieve chronic pain by causing a shift in the autonomic nervous system. Even brief interventions can have a significant impact on pain.

Lighten up. A meta-analysis of laser phototherapy found it to be a valuable tool for reducing neck and back pain, preserving muscle and aiding peripheral nerve regeneration, and decreasing inflammation.

The art of wellness. Art and music affect every cell in the body instantly to create a healing physiology that changes the immune system, blood flow to all the organs, and an individual's perception of pain. Mandala (from the Sanskrit word meaning circle) is an ancient art form now used effectively to help people achieve a state of balance and calm, and lessen depression, anxiety and stress. Music therapy helps in a wide range of pain conditions, by improving mood, encouraging relaxation and elevating the pain threshold. Color therapy is showing promising potential in relieving hand, elbow and lower back pain. Also, journaling, as used for more than two decades by Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a pioneer in using expressive writing as a route to healing, has a beneficial effect on the immune system.

The healing encounter. Important in helping patients manage pain is a “healing encounter” with their clinician, characterized by an emotionally charged relationship with a helping person, a healing setting and an explanation for the patient's symptoms. Then, physician and patient are able to actively work together and develop a continuing ritual or plan to help restore the person to a state of health.

Uday Jani, MD, is in private practice at Shore View Personal Care in Milton, where he blends the best of traditional, integrative and functional medicine. A board-certified internist, Jani believes in treating the whole person - not just the disease - utilizing an evidence-based integrative approach.

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