Experiencing any condition that involves chronic pain can be a life-changing event. As the patient, you recall your blissful pain-free life with a real sense of longing. As the significant other of someone in pain, you stand by helplessly, wanting to do something (anything!) to relieve the suffering. Interestingly, although there are excellent analgesics (pain relievers) available by prescription, there are also plenty of ways a patient can treat his or her own pain, safely, naturally and effectively.
Rather than increasing your prescription, first try nutritional supplements. And then consider alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or a manipulative modality such as chiropractic or craniosacral therapy, all proven pain relievers. Another good option is to visit a pain clinic, where specialists are usually successful at bringing symptoms under control in a few visits.
Chronic pain requires you to be a proactive patient. At WholeHealth Chicago, we suggest that you explore a number of options.
What is Chronic Pain?
The distressing sensation of pain (a word that fittingly comes from the Latin poena, meaning “punishment”) can affect any part of the body. Painful symptoms have a vocabulary all their own, with a variety of words used to describe its qualities: aching, tingling, gnawing, shooting, stabbing, squeezing, throbbing, crushing, burning, and dozens more. Temporary short-lived pain is a common occurrence and just a part of life. Oddly enough it’s probably good for us, often serving as a warning notice from our body to make some sort of change in lifestyle. “Ease up on the jogging.” “Learn how to lift things correctly.” “Aren’t you sorry you ate all that lasagna?” “Next time pay attention when you use a hammer.” “Fire–hot!” Such pain usually goes away quickly, and if we’ve learned the lesson, it won’t reappear so quickly again.
Chronic pain, on the other hand, is defined as pain that lasts for six months or longer and does not respond well to conventional treatments. In other words, an occasional headache or twinge of arthritic pain that an aspirin can relieve is really not chronic pain. On the other hand, fibromyalgia discomfort or diabetic neuropathy (nerve pain), whose day in and day out presence rarely responds well to medication, merits the definition “chronic pain.”
Chronic pain also takes a toll on the sufferer’s emotional and psychological well-being. Then, in a vicious circle, it’s ultimately accompanied by the painful emotional states of anxiety, anger, and depression, each of which badly affects the victim’s relationships with family and friends.
Constant or intermittent pain or aching that lasts for six months or longer and is resistant to conventional pain remedies and treatments. The pain may be felt in the muscles, joints, back, head, or other parts of the body.
Depression, anxiety, insomnia, and daytime fatigue may accompany chronic pain.
Acute pain that then becomes chronic
What Causes Chronic Pain?
When a nerve ending senses an injury or other source of distress, it sends a signal to the brain, which triggers the sensation of pain. If the signal continues to be sent over a period of time, the pain becomes chronic.
Some of the disorders that can cause chronic pain include arthritis, cancer, fibromyalgia, a pinched or irritated nerve, an injury that heals poorly, as well as a host of other ailments. In some cases of chronic pain, especially those involving the muscles and bones, a cause cannot be determined, which makes treatment all the more difficult.
Treatment and Prevention
Although there is no shortage of both over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers, there’s a lot of evidence that patients do not get adequate treatment for chronic pain. There are several reasons for this.
First, conventional physicians rely almost exclusively on painkilling medications and rarely utilize (and are unfamiliar with) alternative forms of therapy such as acupuncture, biofeedback, physical therapy, hypnosis, and osteopathic and chiropractic manipulation.
Also, fearing they’ll cause addiction, many physicians avoid prescribing potent but often necessary types of medication. Pain control has almost become a medical specialty in itself, with medications developed to treat one condition now being used to control the pain from another. Some examples are using antidepressants to control the pain of fibromyalgia or medicines used in epilepsy to control certain nerve pains.
Once your diagnosis has been established, like “fibromyalgia” or “arthritis,” self-treatment of chronic pain is both a necessity and a challenge. Although conventional painkillers can be very effective, they may not work against specific types of chronic pain and they often have unpleasant side effects. For example, the commonly used pain relievers called NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), including aspirin or ibuprofen, can produce stomach irritation, especially when taken in high doses over long periods of time.
Pain-relieving supplements are generally safer than conventional drugs and may eventually decrease your need for them. The recommended supplements can be taken singly or together for the long-term relief of all types of chronic pain. With the exception of white willow bark, most can also be taken in combination with conventional medications.
Make sure to consult your doctor before adding supplements to your pain-relief therapy, especially if you have a serious medical or psychiatric condition.
How Supplements Can Help
Long recognized as a potent pain reliever, white willow bark helps lower levels of the body’s natural pain-producing compounds called prostaglandins. It can relieve many types of chronic pain, including neck and back pain, and also helps reduce fever and inflammation. Although it is safe to combine white willow bark with other herbal painkillers, do not take it with aspirin. Because the active ingredient in white willow bark is salicin, a close chemical relative of aspirin, combining the two can increase the risk of aspirin-related side effects.
Bromelain, an anti-inflammatory protein derived from the pineapple plant, may be especially useful for the relief of pain related to inflammation or soft-tissue problems caused by sports injuries.
Other herbs that may help relieve pain include ginger (which, like white willow bark, reduces prostaglandin levels), boswellia (whose effect seems to be similar to the newly released COX-2 anti-inflammatory drugs), meadowsweet (a salicin-containing herb that was the original source of aspirin), feverfew, cat’s claw, devil’s claw, pau d’arco, and turmeric.
Applied topically, cayenne cream helps ease the joint pain of arthritis, lingering post-shingles pain and painful nerve damage caused by diabetes and certain surgical procedures such as amputation or mastectomy. Cayenne often causes a burning sensation, which may discourage its use on large areas of skin. As an alternative, mix a few drops of ginger, lavender, and birch oils with half an ounce of a neutral oil, such as almond, and massage the mixture into the affected area.
When applied to a painful area, peppermint oil, wintergreen oil, or eucalyptus oil can also help relieve pain They appear to quiet stimulated nerve endings that are transmitting pain signals to the brain.
If you are emotionally depressed from your experience with chronic pain, try the antidepressant herb St. John’s wort. Be prepared to wait at least four to six weeks for its full effect. As an alternative, SAMe may be helpful. Although expensive, SAMe works much faster, and antidepressant effects can be felt in just a few days.
If you are tense or anxious from pain, consider the calming herb kava. This is safe, nonsedating and not habit forming. As an important sidelight, both St. John’s wort and kava also have some direct pain-relieving properties.
Take the natural sleep aid melatonin if pain is keeping you awake at night.
A regular program of moderate physical exercise may help relieve pain. Being active is particularly good for people who are overweight, because shedding pounds will make them less likely to experience chronic pain. Ask your doctor about devising such a program.
Consider acupuncture. Administered by a trained and licensed practitioner, acupuncture may provide at least short-term relief for many different types of pain.
Biofeedback, hypnosis, relaxation training, behavioral counseling, and other mind-body techniques may also be beneficial.
If you are not getting good relief with conventional medicines, ask your doctor to refer you to a pain clinic. These centers keep up-to-date in all the latest development in chronic pain control. Most of these centers provide an integrative approach to pain, using both conventional and alternative treatments.
When to Call a Doctor
If you experience severe and disabling pain
If pain does not respond to prescription, over-the-counter medications, or self-care measures within two weeks
If pain becomes more severe or otherwise changes in nature. (This could be an indication of a new underlying medical problem.)
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: The problem with the most commonly used pain relievers–NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen–is that they have side effects that may include gastrointestinal bleeding (which can be serious enough to lead to hospitalization).
The natural remedies for pain offer alternatives without these side effects. They can be used singly or together, for all types of chronic pain, and most of them can be taken along with conventional drugs.
How to Take the Supplements
Pain caused by inflammation (from arthritis or sports injuries, for example) is a good candidate for relief with bromelain, an anti-inflammatory protein derived from pineapples.
You can combine the bromelain with the herb white willow bark to reduce both pain and inflammation. Because white willow bark mimics aspirin, it should not be taken with that drug because combining them could increase any aspirin-related side effects. Ginger and boswellia are two other herbs that can help relieve the inflammation of muscle aches and joint pain.
Cayenne cream (or capsaicin cream) is a topical preparation that repeatedly has been shown to ease arthritis pain when it’s applied around an affected joint. Cayenne cream suppresses pain impulses and also acts as a counter-irritant, creating a small–and effectively distracting–discomfort. Applied topically, peppermint oil also acts to inhibit pain signals.
The remaining supplements on our list can help with the emotional distress that is often associated with chronic pain. For symptoms of depression accompanying pain, try St. John’s wort, but allow it a full month to show full therapeutic effect. SAMe has similar benefits and acts more quickly than St. John’s wort, but it’s also more expensive.
For the tension and anxiety accompanying pain, take kava, which will actually start to work within an hour or so. Use melatonin before bedtime if pain is interfering with your sleep; it’s a natural sedative.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.