Turning to alternatives, not drugs, for pain relief


Many years ago I suffered from debilitating headaches associated with seemingly unrelated activities, including cooking and sewing. I thought it may be an allergy until I realized that my facial muscles tensed when I concentrated on a project.

The remedy was simple; I became more aware of how my body was reacting and changed it through self-induced behavior modification. I made a conscious effort to relax my muscles when focused on a task that could cause a tension headache.

Five decades later, I again experienced pain in my back as I cooked. I realized stress was being transferred to my back muscles and again, I had to learn to relax them.

I do not mean to imply that every ache and pain can be cured by self-awareness and through behavior modification, but research has demonstrated that the mind along with other non-pharmacological remedies can be very effective in relieving many kinds of chronic or recurring pains.

Quoting Dr. James Campbell, a neurosurgeon and pain specialist, “The best treatment for pain is right under our noses.” He advises that patients should not be “catastrophizing.” They should not assume that the pain represents something disastrous.  

Dr. Campbell goes on to suggest that “If the pain is not an indication that something is seriously wrong, you can learn to live with it.” Too often, he elaborated, “people with pain get caught in a vicious cycle of inactivity that results in lost muscle strength and further pain problems.”

Resorting to powerful drugs to treat chronic pain may only exacerbate the problem, as ever higher doses are often needed. With this in mind, specialists are exploring non-drug, non-invasive treatments, some of which are successful in alleviating pain. The American College of Physicians recently released new non-drug guidelines to treat chronic pain or recurrent back pain, a condition that affects about one quarter of adults in the USA. The college proposes that use of such remedies including superficial heat, massage, acupuncture, and in some cases spinal manipulation. For chronic pain, exercise, rehabilitation, acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, progressive relaxations, cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction have proven effective. 

Researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health published a comprehensive summary on the effectiveness of non-drug treatments for pain. Based on well-designed clinical trials, the team concluded that a list of alternative treatments such as acupuncture and yoga for back pain, or acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee, massage therapy for neck pain, and finally relaxation techniques for headaches and migraines, could be useful sources for pain relief. 

In the newest studies by Dr. Daniel C Cherkin and his colleagues at the Group Health Research Institute and the University of Washington, both mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy were comparable in relieving dysfunction and pain severity. In a study conducted two years later, patients with mindfulness therapy or CBT were more likely to improve in comparison to those who received the usual care.