8 Surprising (And Natural) Ways to beat Pain
8 Surprising (And Natural) Ways To Beat Pain
If you suffer from chronic pain, you probably think you have two options: pop pills or tough it out. But medical doctors are increasingly turning to natural pain relief alternatives—like acupuncture, yoga, and even hypnosis—to help their patients feel better. In fact, pain is now among the most common reasons Americans turn to complementary and alternative medicine in the first place. To find out what works, we polled a handful of our top experts, including the grandfather of integrative medicine Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center.
Whether you have lower-back pain, neck aches, arthritis, or fibromyalgia, to name only a few, we have the scoop on what therapies can offer you relief—withoutdrugs.
What it’s good for:Back pain, osteoarthritis, tension headaches, fibromyalgia, neck pain, and surgery-related discomfort.
What the experts say:Sure, massages feel great, but they provide much more than a few “ahhhs” for people with back pain. “Massage therapy has been shown to boost levels of endorphins and serotonin—the body’s natural painkillers and mood regulators—and to reduce stress hormone levels,” says Dr. Weil. Massage therapy may also work at a molecular level, helping to turn on and off genes associated with inflammation, according to a study inScience Translational Medicine.
It’s showing promise for post-operation patients, as well. “We’ve conducted a number of studies on massage as a treatment for pain following surgery,” says Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. “In each of these studies we have been able to demonstrate statistically significant reductions in pain, along with significant reductions in anxiety.” The results have been so compelling, he says, that massage therapy is now routinely available toallpatients undergoing surgery at the Mayo Clinic.
MORE: How To Massage Away Anxiety
2. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
What it’s good for:The talking cure can change the way you think about your aches, and can also reduce stress, which worsens many kinds of pain.
What the experts say:“In terms of mind-body management, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is probably the approach that works best for chronic pain,” says Daphne Miller, MD, an integrative physician with a private practice in San Francisco. In fact, CBT is significantly more effective than standard treatments for people with body-wide pain, according to a study published in the January 2012 issue of theArchives of Internal Medicine. That’s because lifestyle changes and stress reduction not only help reduce pain, but they also help you cope with the symptoms when they flare up.
What’s it good for:Chronic back pain, migraines, tension headaches, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, sciatica, and rheumatoid arthritis.
What the experts say:The ancient practice of acupuncture, where tiny needles are inserted into specific points in the body, is part of a complete medical protocol focused on correcting imbalances of energy—known as qi or chi—in the body, says Dr. Weil. “There remains no scientific consensus on the mechanism behind acupuncture’s effectiveness,” he says, “but research published fromNature Neuroscienceonline showed that the careful placement of needles in specific acupuncture points affects the activity of adenosine, an amino acid that becomes active in the skin after an injury to ease pain.” Dr. Bauer says that the Mayo Clinic is currently offering it to some patients for pain management. And Frank Lipman, MD, an integrative physician and founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness in New York, says it’s about time: “I have been using acupuncture for the last 25 years with incredible effects. Not only does it help with pain but often—and more importantly—it improves functioning of the nervous system and musculoskeletal system, which is often the cause of the pain.”
MORE: How To Use Acupuncture To Treat Health Problems
What it’s good for:Lower-back pain, arthritis, and migraines
What the experts say:Upwards of 20 million Americans practice this ancient mind-body discipline, in part because it promotes relaxation. But recent research suggests there’s more to yoga thanohmsand pretzel-like poses. After two months of twice weekly practice, people suffering from lower back pain reported a 42% reduction of pain and a 46% reduction of depressive symptoms, according to a study published in the journalSpine. Though it’s not fully understood why yoga reduces back pain, there is growing evidence suggesting the practice help enhance stress-coping mechanisms—which is crucial, since stress can make pain symptoms feel worse. Yoga is now among the American Pain Foundation’s recommended treatments for lower-back pain.
MORE: The Best Yoga Style For Your Personality
5. Hypnosis and Guided Imagery
What it’s good for:Lower-back pain and possibly fibromyalgia
What the experts say:As out-there as it sounds, hypnotherapy is now among the recommended treatments for lower back pain by the American College of Physicians/American Pain Society. Here’s how it works: “Hypnotherapy is used to induce a state of consciousness marked by deep relaxation yet increased intensity of awareness,” says Dr. Weil. “It is often likened to daydreaming.” You are then guided by a hypnotherapist to focus on the idea of promoting healing and relieving pain.
“Another method, guided imagery, is often considered a form of hypnosis,” says Dr. Weil. During a typical session, you are guided to concentrate on images held in the mind’s eye that can create positive physiological changes in the body, including the relief of pain.
What it’s good for:Chronic pain reduction and symptom management
What the experts say: Dr. Lipman says he'as seen firsthand how meditation can help his patients cope with chronic pain, and the Mayo Clinic has had success with the technique, as well. "Recent studies suggest that meditation training can be helpful in dealing with chronic pain," says Dr. Bauer. If you want to try meditation,but aren't sure where to start, Dr. Weil recommends simple breathing exercises, which can lessen your perception of pain. His favorite is the 4-7-8 breath. To try it:
- Sit or lie in a comfortable position and place the tip of your tongue just behind your upper teeth.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a gentle “whoosh” sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of four.
- Then hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Finally, exhale completely through your mouth (“whoosh”) to a silent count of eight.
- Inhale and repeat the cycle three more times.
7. Qigong and Tai Chi
What it’s good for:Arthritis, lower-back pain, and fibromyalgia
What the experts say:These slow-as-molasses movements may be as effective as prescription pain killers for some pain patients, according to new research. Women with fibromyalgia reported less pain after practicing qigong, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Medical School study, although larger trials need to be conducted to confirm these benefits. When qigong was combined with meditation in a University of Maryland study, the two treatments reduced pain as effectively as prescription drugs. Fibromyalgia patients may also benefit from practicing tai chi, according to a study published in theNew England Journal of Medicine. The researchers say these findings support previous research showing the benefits of tai chi for musculoskeletal pain, though the underlying mechanisms aren’t yet fully understood.
MORE: Natural Alternatives For The Top Rx Drugs
8. Herbal remedies
What it’s good for:Reducing inflammation that may worsen pain
What the experts say:The research is still equivocal, and anyone planning to take herbs and supplements should consult with their physician or a licensed naturopath. Still, many MDs find that their patients experience relief with omega-3 fish oil supplements and daily consumption of anti-inflammatory spices. “The three main supplements I use for pain are fish oils and turmeric, which are both anti-inflammatory, as well as vitamin D,” says Dr. Lipman. Some small studies have found that fish oil may reduce pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis, too.
Dr. Miller is a proponent of turmeric for pain. “Take two teaspoons of turmeric and one teaspoon of grated ginger per day, with a little black pepper to help absorption; it works as a natural alternative to ibuprofen, and is great for achy joints. I make a smoothie in the morning with mango, turmeric and ginger,” says Dr. Miller.
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