In last month’s issue of Nutrition & Healing, I shared with you how the U.S. government is cracking down on prescription painkillers – namely opioids like morphine, Vicodin, and Oxycontin.
That means lots of people on pain medications are going to be left in the lurch – and looking for alternatives. That’s going to be new territory for many mainstream doctors. For years they’ve just been dashing off prescriptions for these powerful drugs that should really be a last resort. This should serve as a warning for patients and doctors in the UK too, where there has been a sharp rise in recent years in the number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers. A similar crackdown on these drugs could soon become a reality in the UK.
The good news is that there are plenty of drug-free pain-relief options in the integrative medical community – including eight I’ll introduce you to in just a moment. But first let me get you caught up on where things stand in America right now, which as already mentioned, has important implications for those of you across the pond.
Patients left in the lurch
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, Dr. Robert Califf, stated last spring, ‘The FDA remains steadfast in our commitment to do our part to help reverse the devastating impact of the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids.’1
And a I shared with you last month, I do applaud the FDA’s bold move in admitting that these prescription drugs are causing serious harm to the American public. But the options that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA actually DID recommend for these poor patients in pain boiled down to just cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exercise.
I’m not saying that they don’t have their merits. But if you’ve ever been (or are now) in the relentless pain of a chronic condition like fibromyalgia… or severe pain from a surgery or injury… you know that being told to go see a shrink, join a gym, or chant a mantra just isn’t going to cut it.
In fact, it’s sure to drive a patient away – straight to another doctor who WILL give them some pain relief. To their credit, the CDC recommendations do briefly mention integrative medicine, but they only discuss therapies such as talk therapy, yoga, qi gong, touch therapy, creative arts therapy, biofeedback, meditation, and hypnosis. And even those options were buried deep in a link in their report – and I don’t think there are nearly enough of them there for the type of pain that people out there are dealing with.
Fortunately, there’s some relief that we can offer, without the dangers of addictive and possibly deadly prescription drugs – and they’re sure to come in handy, especially if opioid painkiller prescriptions become restricted in the UK.
Change your body, change your pain
I’ve seen one strategy ease the pain of many of my patients: losing weight. It can take the pressure off sore knees, alleviate a bad back, and make chronic pain conditions easier to cope with.
But I know that’s not what you want to hear. And since significant weight loss can happen over a prolonged period of time… and you need help NOW… here’s a plentiful assortment of eight drug free options for you to try:
1. Acupuncture and acupressure: Both of these therapies from ancient Chinese medicine have been around for centuries and are proven to have a host of health benefits – not the least of which is the management of pain. While they each target channels of energy in the body called ‘meridians’, acupuncture is the only one of the two to use tiny needles in the process. As a medical acupuncturist, I’ve found that it can not only lessen inflammation and relax muscles – but it can also affect your nervous system, your endocrine system (including endorphins), and your immune system. Visit www. icnm.org.uk to find a practitioner near you.
2. Physical therapy: PT is so widely used and accepted, it’s funny to think of it as being ‘alternative’ – but it is a vastly effective alternative to more drastic measures, like surgery.2 And, as we know, even minor surgical procedures are sometimes the gateway for people to unintentionally get hooked on (or overdose on) opioids. It might even be already familiar to you, if you’ve ever had something like a sports injury… a joint replacement… or mobility issues from polio, Parkinson’s, or a stroke. The exact nature of the PT sessions will depend on what issue is being treated, but the focus will be on making it easier for you to move – ideally without pain, but at the very least with less pain. This can complement other pain management strategies very well.
3. Massage: There are MANY different forms of massage, but on the most basic level, this is a therapy that focuses on manipulating your muscles. It’s known to release endorphins, a group of hormones that are known as your body’s own natural pain relievers – and some people find it very relaxing, especially when combined with essential oils and aromatherapy. And it’s been shown to be equally as effective as exercise in relieving lower chronic back pain.3 The effects of massage tend to be cumulative, so get into a regular routine with it if you can.
4. Rolfing: This therapy, which started in the early 1970s, manipulates the soft tissues of your body in a sort of hybrid between massage and assisted yoga, working specifically on your body’s alignment. While the practice is generally considered gentle, it can go pretty deep… and therefore become a bit intense for some people. It can help with posture problems and stress-induced pain, but it may not be the best option for very serious cases of chronic pain.
5. Chiropractic: While massage focuses on your muscles, and rolfing focuses on your connective tissues, chiropractic treatments focus on your bones – particularly, your spine. It’s used to treat low back pain, headaches, neck pain, and a variety of other painful conditions including fibromyalgia and even whiplash.4
The pressure is generally moderate, and patients can experience some relief after just one session. No two chiropractic sessions are alike, but generally the pressure is moderate and it’s considered safe.
6. Craniosacral therapy: Also known as ‘cranial sacral therapy,’ this is another form of ‘bodywork,’ and it’s considered one type of osteopathic manipulative therapy (which also includes visceral manipulation and lymphatic drainage).5 A practitioner focuses on your skull, manipulating the joints of your cranium with a relatively soft touch. Some people find it relaxing enough to ease anxiety and improve quality of life, as shown in a 2011 study on fibromyalgia patients.6 A recent study in the Clinical Journal of Pain found it effective for relieving chronic neck pain after eight weeks of treatment – an effect that lasted for three months after the sessions were over.7 And while a brand new study out of Spain found that 10 sessions improved pain intensity better than the same number of traditional massage sessions,8 another study from this year out of Poland showed that craniosacral therapy was at least as good as traditional massage in relieving pain in the cranial part of the spine.9
7. Reiki and therapeutic touch: Although they’re two different practices, both reiki and therapeutic touch are healing therapies that don’t necessarily require the practitioner to actually touch you. And that can be good if you don’t like the idea of being massaged by someone you don’t know. Like massage, some people find these practices incredibly relaxing – especially since they’re meant to heal your energy, which, theoretically, allows your body to heal itself. Studies have shown a significant reduction in pain in knee osteoarthritis with therapeutic touch.10 And even Newsweek reported that reiki’s ‘results are hard to deny.’11 Neither one is likely to do you any harm,12 since most of the time the therapist’s hands are hovering over your body rather than actually manipulating your tissues.
At the very least, a session may put you at ease… or help you sleep… and when you’re in pain, that can be priceless.
8. Portable / wearable therapies: If you’re less of a ‘people person’ and would prefer your pain relief to come in the form of a machine, there’s a growing number o sophisticated ‘microcurrent’ devices out there that have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation through either an electrical current (for example, TENS and MENS) or electromagnetic pulses (PEMF). They come in a variety of formats, from pads you lie down on to knee cuffs, patches and electrode pads wired to a little machine that you can carry around.
Between the adhesives and the ‘shock’ you may feel, these methods can be a bit irritating – especially if you’ve got sensitive skin or are sensitive to being touched. However, they’ve been shown to decrease swelling, increase circulation, and actually reduce your perception of pain.13 These methods are often incorporated into chiropractic treatment visits, and they can get you through the gaps between appointments.
There are too many pain management alternatives to explore exhaustively here, and not every therapy is well-suited to every type of pain… so experiment with an open mind to figure out what works for you. Not everything works on every person.
Imagine: no pain, no drugs needed
As with any complementary therapy, consult your doctor before trying any of the above alternatives to manage your pain. Although they’re all considered safe, they may not be recommended for you under certain circumstances. If you feel anything more than a little soreness a day or two after your sessions, seek medical help right away.
A holistic doctor can help you sort out your options in your battle with pain – especially to make sure you don’t do anything to make it worse.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 8 • August 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.