Centuries ago Julius Caesar stated, “It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience”. Today an understanding of the physiology of pain has led to many effective pain-relieving modalities.
A pervasive problem
According to Chronic Pain Australia, three in 10 Australians experience chronic pain at any given time. In most instances pain is a signal of an underlying condition such as an injury or a condition such as fibromyalgia or arthritis. More often than not, treatment for pain control is needed to help an individual function on a daily basis.
A simple picture of pain can be illustrated when your hand accidently touches a hot saucepan. Pain is perceived when a nerve ending senses discomfort in the skin. The nerve immediately transmits a pain signal to the spinal column, which is then sent to the brain.
Pain-relieving medications and extracts strive to lessen discomfort by acting at various points of the pain pathway. Medications such as ibuprofen and extracts such as turmeric elicit an anti-inflammatory action at the site of pain, while opioids such as morphine block the perception of pain in the brain stem.
Pharmaceuticals can be very effective in controlling pain, but they can also lead to addiction, pose side effects and create major health and safety concerns when accidently combined with other medications. For this reason, alternative modalities provide a safer and desired method for pain management.
How it works
Yoga’s postures (asanas) increase body flexibility, and its breathing techniques (pranayama) reduce stress. Some researchers believe that practising yoga leads to the release of endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and mood boosters.
The idea of movement may invoke more discomfort than relief to those who live with chronic pain. However, researchers in the UK had people with chronic low back pain participate in regular yoga classes for 12 weeks. The classes included basic poses and breathing techniques.
Subjects who finished the sessions had better back function than those who did not complete the classes. Researchers concluded that yoga can significantly improve functioning in individuals living with chronic low back pain.
In another study, researchers at a US university found that yoga can not only enhance muscular strength and body flexibility but also improve an individual’s quality of life.
Yoga was shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, as well as improve sleep patterns. With such a multitude of benefits, incorporating yoga into a daily fitness program can provide therapeutic relief for chronic pain and elevate overall well-being.
How it works
Although acupuncture has been used for centuries in China as the principal treatment method for nearly all illness, only in recent years has the Western world grasped acupuncture’s powerful ability to help the body heal. Relying on the body’s energy, practitioners aim to correct imbalances in the flow of qi by stimulating anatomical locations on or under the skin called acupuncture points.
After reviewing the literature on acupuncture, American researchers found that acupuncture is an effective alternative modality, which provides pain relief of chronic low back pain, osteoarthritis and migraine headaches.
A new study is underway by researchers at RMIT University to evaluate the potential benefits of acupuncture for reducing opioid medications by people with chronic pain. In Australia, consumption of such medications has increased by five to 40 times.
Acupuncture can relieve many types of pain, including sports injuries, repetitive strain injuries, neck and back pain and sciatica. Acupuncture treatments have been shown to elevate our pain threshold, improve blood circulation and increase white blood cell activity. >
How it works
Bowen therapy uses light, non-invasive pressure at specific points to trigger the body’s self-healing powers and is gaining popularity for its pain-reducing abilities. Developed in Australia by Tom Bowen in the 1950s, practitioners use trigger points, acupuncture meridians and stretch reflexes to induce healing.
A British study documented the outcome of individuals treated with Bowen therapy for frozen shoulder, a painful condition characterised by limited range of shoulder motion. Subjects found the treatments to be gentle, relaxing and non-invasive. They significantly helped eliminate and improve the symptoms associated with frozen shoulder.
In another study Bowen therapy was shown to be very effective in improving hamstring flexibility, which in turn helped to relieve low back pain and increase movement function. This modality underscores the tremendous ability of the body to heal on its own.
In Australia, study subjects who were treated with Bowen therapy found improvements in overall physical and mental well-being. They reported that Bowen therapy was successful in reducing pain; improving mobility; reducing stress; and improving energy, well-being and sleep.
How it works
Massage has been used for centuries to relax the body and relieve pain. Massage therapists perform many types of massage from gentle pressure to strong kneading of muscles and soft tissues.
A study followed 64 patients who received one massage session per week for 10 weeks. Researchers found that patients experienced a reduction in chronic neck pain. When comparing structural massage and relaxation massage, researchers noted that both types of massage provided relief for up to six months in individuals with low back pain.
Taiwanese researchers found that patients with metastatic bone pain experienced marked improvement in sleep quality, mood and muscle relaxation after receiving regular massage treatments.
The benefits of massage can go beyond physical relief of musculoskeletal pain to profound effects on overall health. Massage can help regulate the circulatory, lymphatic and nervous systems. It can reduce muscle tension, relieve stress and create a sense of calm.
How it works
Chiropractors manipulate the spine and joints to treat illness. This treatment modality is based on the belief that the nervous system controls the body. Therefore by manipulating the spine, a chiropractor can treat a variety of illnesses.
The American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society recommend that health care practitioners should consider chiropractic treatment for patients who do not improve with self-care methods such as stretching.
In Australia, chiropractors’ position as providers of therapeutic health care is recognised by the number of private medical insurance funds that pay benefits for chiropractic services.
Researchers are currently studying whether combining chiropractic treatments with acupuncture can provide additional, sustained pain relief.
One of the most common types of alternative modalities, chiropractic treatment has been shown to be effective for relieving back pain.
How it works
Foot reflexology has a long history; it first appeared on ancient tomb murals in Egypt. A type of energy modality, reflexology uses the practice of applying pressure to zones on the feet, hands and ears, which correspond to specific areas of the body.
Reflexology is thought to direct the body’s qi and elicit a healing response. An interesting study from Iran looked at women who experienced chronic premenstrual cramps and were treated with reflexology. The women reported reflexology not only decreased pain, but also was more effective than ibuprofen at minimising chronic discomfort.
Korean researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 44 studies on reflexology. They found that foot reflexology relieved chronic pain and had positive effects on fatigue and sleep.
Researchers propose that reflexology may improve blood and lymph circulation, which helps to soften muscle and promote relaxation. It offers pain relief of the neck, shoulders and back; and relief from migraines, stress and insomnia.
While many options exist for pain relief, selecting one or a combination of alternative modalities can provide long-lasting and safe pain management. Most modalities have been shown to offer additional benefits such as stress relief and improvements in sleep quality. Choosing an experienced practitioner or teacher may also be the key to a pain-free, healthier life.
Natural pain-relieving supplements
- omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)
- glucosamine sulphate
- chondroitin sulphate
- devil’s claw
- white willow bark
- cayenne pepper
Note: a vitamin D deficiency often occurs in patients with fibromyalgia or musculoskeletal pain. Please consult your health care practitioner for advice on supplements and dosages that are right for you.