When a carpenter frames a house, he uses more than a hammer and nails. At a minimum, he also uses a measuring tape, a chalk line, and a circular saw. In other words, he utilizes a multitude of tools to achieve the desired result. Chronic pain management works similarly. In order to reduce suffering to the point where you can move through life on your terms, it’s important to employ every tool available to get the job done.
Using all of the available tools is another way of saying that chronic pain should be tackled using a holistic approach. “Holistic” has its origins in the Greek word “holos,” which means “entire” or “whole.” When applied to medicine and healing, the big idea is that a person is more than a collection of individual organs, muscles, and blood. A holistic approach is one that views our anatomical components as connected to one other, and our physical bodies as connected to our mental and spiritual selves.
Tackling pain management holistically involves moving beyond traditional allopathic treatments. For example, instead of focusing on a specific area of the body and treating that – such as muscle relaxants for lower back pain – a holistic approach looks at the entire person. For lower back pain, underlying causes like weak core muscles or biomechanical issues in the feet might be addressed, along with psychological strategies to cope with the actual pain.
A holistic approach to pain management uses a variety of techniques and strategies, including acupuncture, meditation, and hypnosis.
Acupuncture, a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine, dates back to 100 B.C. and involves inserting small needles in some of the 365 points on the body to improve the flow of Qi energy. While the mechanisms of acupuncture aren’t thoroughly understood, research indicates that pain relief arises from the interaction between signals sent from the area containing the needle to brain nuclei, and can involve opioid peptides and their receptors.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is evidence that acupuncture can help alleviate a variety of types of pain, including that associated with migraine and tension headaches, as well as pain in the knee, lower back, and neck. Acupuncture may also work to ameliorate side effects and symptoms of cancer treatment.
Acupuncture treatments vary by practitioner, but typically involve an initial evaluation followed by a 30-minute treatment. Treatment usually consists of the acupuncturist inserting up to 20 very fine needles into what are called acupoints. Sometimes, the practitioner manipulates the needles, or applies heat or a low-level electrical pulse to the needles. After 15 or 20 minutes, the needles are removed. Treatments are offered once or twice each until relief is achieved, and then less frequently as a “maintenance” program.
Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that incorporates the mind-body connection as a foundational belief. Research has demonstrated a number of psychological and physical benefits from meditation, including relief from chronic lower back pain. An NIH-funded study found that a mindfulness meditation program for a person with lower back pain also resulted in a $982 reduction of health care costs and a $724 reduction in productivity loss over time.
There are several different types of meditation. Vipassana, also known as insight or mindfulness meditation, begins with learning to focus on the breath and then learning to observe the emergence and cessation of thoughts and physical sensations without getting caught up in them. Mantra meditation derives from Hindu traditions and incorporates a sound (mantra) that is repeated a certain number of times, using beads to keep track of the number. Yoga – as a meditative practice rather than an exercise regimen – typically involves concentrating on a center of energy in the body, called a chakra. Qigong is a Chinese mind-body meditation that typically incorporates protracted body movements combined with breathing exercises. Contemplative prayer is a Christian meditative practice that involves the mental repetition of sacred words.
If you’re new to meditation, you may be able to find a meditation group or Meet Up near you, or you can learn to meditate from internet instructions or YouTube videos.
As a pain management tool, hypnosis is a far cry from parlor tricks and stage antics. Hypnotherapy works by interrupting the pattern of memories and emotional responses attached to a particular event. Research has demonstrated that hypnosis can change the experience of both acute and chronic pain, and a review of the scientific literature found that 75% of research subjects found pain relief with hypnotherapy.
If you have chronic pain, you likely have a mental and emotional reaction to the physical sensation. A hypnotherapist helps you achieve a state of deep relaxation in which you can work to reframe your experience and respond differently in the future. As a result, you can develop the ability to regulate your experience of pain, much like you would turn down the burner on a gas stove.
A carpenter framing a house relies on every tool in his toolkit. By exploring holistic and alternative therapies, those who experience chronic pain can expand their toolkits and find a combination of approaches that makes pain more manageable and life more enjoyable.
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