Chronic pain affects is a widespread problem. The NIH reports that over 25 million adults in the U.S. have experienced pain every day for the previous 3 months, many for far longer.
Worse, in many cases that pain is severe. Fortunately, modern medicine not only has an array of traditional treatments for chronic pain but is now integrating complementary treatments into its protocol as well.
Doctors in various specialties, as well as those in general practice, are beginning to see the
benefits of incorporating complementary medicine into their practices.
Some doctors, like physiatrists, whose specialty is nonsurgical pain management and restoration of function for patients with spinal and musculoskeletal problems, have always included complementary treatments in their bag of tricks.
A growing body of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, suggests that complementary
therapies are alleviating chronic pain and improving patients’ quality of life.
Let’s take a look at complementary therapies and see which are most helpful in treating particular types of chronic pain.
3 Types of Complementary Treatment to Manage Chronic Pain
There are three types of complementary medicine: physical, psychological, and nutritional.
Many of these treatments come to us by way of Eastern medicine.
Some are hands-on and
some are not, but all focus on using the mind-body connection to relax and energize the patient, and promote healing.
Physical complementary therapies include PEMF (pulsed electromagnetic field therapy), acupuncture, yoga, Tai Chi, Reiki, Qigong, massage, and dance therapy. Some of these work by training the body to move with simultaneous control and relaxation, and others include hands-on work by skilled practitioners.
Psychological complementary therapies include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis,
spirituality, art therapies, counseling, mindfulness, visual imaging, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and support groups. All of these harness mental energy and redirect focus to enable understanding and use of the body-mind connection to relieve pain and accelerate healing.
Nutritional complementary therapies use natural substances, such as herbs, roots, teas, and flowers, to address specific physical problems. These natural substances include aloe, probiotics, melatonin, ginkgo, chamomile, echinacea, flaxseed, peppermint oil, green tea, soy, St. John’s wort, tea tree oil, cayenne, glucosamine, chondroitin, evening primrose, Tumeric, and medical marijuana. Nutritional therapy also makes use of particular fruits and vegetables as well as vitamin and mineral supplements to enhance the diet.
Although complementary treatments avoid the heightened risks of surgery or opioid use, some, especially nutritional therapies, may have dangerous consequences if used in incorrect dosages, while pregnant, or in conjunction with certain other supplements or medications.
This is why it’s essential to consult with your doctor before beginning a regimen of nutritional supplements.
Which Complementary Treatments Work on Which Kinds of Chronic Pain
Let’s examine which complementary therapies have proven most effective in treating various types of chronic pain. Not all treatments work on all individuals, and some responses, as with all medical care, are idiosyncratic.
Low Back Pain
Pain in the lower back can be relieved by acupuncture, massage therapy, mindfulness, spinal manipulation, yoga, Qigong, cayenne (applied topically), and glucosamine and chondroitin for osteoarthritis.
Some patients have found that their chronic pain is relieved by Tai Chi, acupuncture, yoga,
mindfulness, biofeedback, and vitamin D supplements (if they have a vitamin D deficiency).
Evidence shows that the chronic pain of migraines and other headaches may be alleviated by acupuncture in terms of reduced frequency and diminished severity. Some patients also experience relief from massage, biofeedback, spinal manipulation, Tai Chi, yoga, and various relaxation techniques.
Patients with chronic neck pain may experience relief through massage or acupuncture, though it may be of short duration.
For some patients suffering the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis, acupuncture, massage, and mindfulness meditation are helpful, as are supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids or primrose oil. Hands-on methods for the relief of rheumatoid arthritis pain must sometimes be altered for patient comfort.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Common complementary treatments for the chronic abdominal pain of IBS include
hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, probiotics, soluble fiber, and peppermint oil. Related.
How Complementary Treatments Work to Reduce Chronic Pain
A certain percentage of people, even some healthcare professionals, reject complementary
treatments as fakery even though they help millions of people cope successfully with chronic pain. The relief these therapies provide is neither imaginary nor magic; it has its roots in scientific information.
Depending on which particular therapy is being discussed, complementary treatments affect the body in several significant ways, such as:
- Reducing swelling and inflammation
- Redirecting the patient’s attention away from the pain
- Enhancing the positive effects of traditional treatments and medications
- Teaching patients to move in ways that relax them, rather than increase tension
- Helping patients to become aware of, and take control, of bodily processes like heart rate and respiration
- Increasing the flow of energy through the body
- Providing patients with a sense of empowerment
- Acting as natural opioids
- Breaking the cycle of pain and mental stress
- Restoring regular sleep patterns
If you have sought traditional medical care and are still in chronic pain, it may be time to consult with doctors who accept the benefits of complementary treatments and weave them into their practice.
For spinal and musculoskeletal pain from conditions like arthritis, stenosis, sciatica, neuropathy, tendonitis, and bursitis, consider making an appointment with a well-respected physiatrist who has studied these treatment methods from the get-go.
If you are suffering other chronic pain, e.g. digestive or respiratory, look for a specialist who is open-minded and pragmatic as well as highly skilled, and who will use complementary as well as traditional treatments to make you feel better.
About The Author:
Dr. Jason Lipetz, MD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Hofstra University School of Medicine and founder of Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine. Dr. Lipetz received his specialized and interventional spine medicine training during a fellowship year at the internationally recognized Penn Spine Center of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Lipetz has authored over thirty original articles and abstracts in peer-reviewed journals and several textbook chapters, including chapters within the leading texts in both the Interventional Spine Care and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation literature.