Pain. It is our bodies’ warning system that something needs attention, from minor aches and pains to major injuries. What happens, though, when that system goes haywire, causing pain long after healing has occurred? This chronic pain is difficult to deal with, as it bypasses the original cause – seemingly taking on a life of its own.
Chronic pain is more than just an inconvenience or an unfortunate consequence of injury or surgery. It can contribute to depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, sexual dysfunction and brain fog. Both human and animal studies show that brain function is altered over the course of just a few months of chronic pain, including a decrease of the grey matter in the brain. It often becomes more complex and difficult to treat over time.
Over the past 200 years, opioids have been used for pain management through both intravenous and pill forms. As time has gone on, we have seen an alarming rise in opioid misuse and addiction – so much so that access to some of these important pain management drugs has become limited through manufacturing reduction and government prescribing guidelines by the Center for Disease Control and the Surgeon General. This shift has necessitated a broad search for other effective options to deal with difficult and long-term pain. Below are a few of these options.
Hypnotherapy, unlike the hypnotist shows you may see in Las Vegas, when performed by a trained hypnotherapist can help modulate pain response. A recent Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews article has defined hypnosis as the regulation of conscious awareness, a process in which “mental representations override physiology, perception and behavior.” By using both the left and right brain, skills can be learned to regulate the nervous system, allowing for a deeper state of relaxation.
Specific combinations of amino acids can be used to effect change in neurotransmitters of the brain which influence how we feel and perceive pain.
Mind-body medicine. A person’s perception of pain is influenced by many physiological factors that have been shown to respond to behavioral and mental cues such as stress. There are low-tech options to manage these responses such as breathing, tai chi, yoga, meditation, physical therapy and massage therapy. Recently many phone applications and computer software have been developed that can track and help modulate stress markers.
Acupuncture, a 5,000-year-old form of medicine is thought to be effective against pain by causing micro-injury response, endorphin release, and from the Chinese medicine philosophy, freer flow of qi or energy through the body, thus providing ease and decreased pain.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term, practical approach to changing patterns of thinking or behavior that contribute to pain. Thought patterns that may increase pain are expecting things to turn out for the worst and focusing on pain. These thoughts are countered with realistic balanced thoughts and distraction from pain by focusing on other things.
Hydrotherapy is the most basic and mechanical of this list, employing cool or warm heat applications. Moist heat helps with relaxation by improving circulation, bringing oxygen and nutrients via fresh blood into the area. The heat itself takes the place of pain on some of the sensory pathways signally the brain, thus decreasing the pain sensation. Cold applications help with pain by reducing excess swelling as well as temporarily diminishing sensory nerve activity.
The next time you or a loved one is experiencing pain beyond what is normal for healing of the original injury, ask your health care provider about all your options for pain management. It is important to address and manage chronic pain with the same attention we do any other chronic disease.