Health Features

Pain: Alternative Solutions

It is estimated that between 50 million and 100 million Americans struggle with chronic pain, sometimes so severe that it limits normal activities. It can affect any area of the body, and many patients search for nontraditional treatments as alternatives to prescription drugs.

Some alternative pain methods are considered experimental, and not every technique will be effective for every patient. But in recent years, there has been a growing movement toward drug-free, mind-body solutions. Many of them make a key connection between psychological and physical health, including stress reduction techniques to help the body deal with pain. While not intended to replace the advice of a doctor, they may offer additional relief options for those who prefer not to take medication.

Chelsea Bakke, a spa therapist, licensed massage therapist and reiki master at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, says controlling mental and physical stresses can be an effective way to confront pain. “When the body is free of stress, pain is often less noticeable,” she says. She recommends practicing kundalini yoga, or ‘yoga of awareness,’ as a way for people to get in touch with their bodies’ pain responses. “Yogic breathing releases tension and relaxes the body,” she explains. “When you’re aware of where the pain actually is coming from, it can become more manageable.” She often blends yogic breathing with other relaxing treatments at the spa and says many clients comment on how much better they feel afterward.

It’s important to talk with your physician about the best approach to manage your own pain, but the following are some alternative ideas to consider.

anti-inflammatory diet: “Toxins in the body are related to inflammation and pain and can be prevented naturally by following an anti-inflammatory diet (high in fresh produce and low in ingredients like sugar),” Bakke notes. “I personally have experienced dramatic success following a vegan diet.”

dietary supplements: Certain supplements like vitamin D, curcumin, glucosamine chondroitin sulfate, and omega-3 fatty acids may improve cellular health, which can help regulate pain.

aromatherapy: Recent research may indicate a connection between aromatherapy and the reduction of some types of pain, depression, anxiety and inflammation.

mindfulness exercises: “This is now a mainstream idea due to its impact on neuroscience and conventional medical practices,” Bakke says. “Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce pain in clinical trials. It’s about observing our actions, thoughts and feelings without being lost in them, viewing them as our identity or forgetting that our true nature is separate from them.”

reiki healing energy: Bakke says this ancient Japanese technique helps restore mental and physical balance and relieves pain and psychological disturbance. “The person participating in reiki is truly his or her own healer,” she explains. “For some, profound results can happen in one session; for others, it may take several. Reiki is offered in some hospitals and oncology centers for patients dealing with pain, stress, anxiety and depression.”

laser therapy: According to Bakke, high-powered laser energy therapy has shown good results in reducing pain and inflammation in some patients.

acupuncture: This technique uses very thin needles inserted at strategic points on the skin’s surface to reduce a variety of types of pain.

massage therapy: Studies suggest that massage can be effective in managing chronic neck and back pain.

tai chi: The Chinese martial art can help you relax and become more in tune with your body.

guided imagery exercises: This technique uses positive images and sounds to bring about beneficial effects on the mind and body.

stem cell therapy
Stem cell treatment is a controversial issue, but the main idea behind it is to help the
body heal injured tissue (which often causes pain). Mayo Clinic researchers say there is hope that stem cell therapy may be useful in reducing pain caused by degenerative conditions like arthritis.

Stem cells are thought of as the building blocks of human tissue. They have potential regenerative value because they can send valuable programming signals about tissue growth and healing to other cells in the body. One goal is to use them to regrow tissues like cartilage that break down over time, causing pain and lack of mobility.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a handful of clinical trials are being conducted and monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to see if stem cell treatments can positively impact painful conditions. Some stem cell products are marketed directly to the public without proper FDA licensing, so it’s important to discuss the subject with a qualified health care professional.

Migraines can be unpredictable. They may be chronic (ongoing) or episodic (occasional), and in some cases, they may be associated with women’s menstrual cycles. There are a number of ways to treat them, including medicines such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), analgesics, ergotamines and triptans. But some of these only can be used for a limited number of days per month, so alternative ways of addressing the pain may be needed. Homeopathic substances like belladonna have been suggested as possible migraine treatments, but studies have not shown them to be effective, and they may even be harmful. Also, while essential oils like lavender or peppermint may be helpful in relaxing the body, they have not been shown to be useful against migraines.

the following may offer relief:

  • Magnesium: This nutrient is found naturally in many green vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains and may be helpful against migraines with aura and menstrual- related migraines. It also can be taken as a daily supplement.
  • Butterbur Extract: The herbal product may help prevent migraines in some patients. Some preparations contain chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are linked to liver damage, so it should be used with caution.
  • Acupuncture: Some patients find migraine relief through this technique.

what to avoid:

  • Processed foods containing nitrates or MSG
  • Pickled foods
  • Alcohol, especially red wines
  • Cheese that contain the compound tyramine (blue cheese, feta, cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss)

check it out
St. Louis native and health writer Danielle Fancher is the author of 10: A Memoir of Migraine Survival, the story of her struggle with the realities of migraine pain and her efforts to educate others about it. She discusses how her chronic migraines—a type of disabling headache that causes severe pain, light and sound sensitivity, and visual disturbance—interfere with normal activities. Migraines can run in families, and Fancher notes that it’s important to dispel the myth that they are a sign of weakness or poor health choices.
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