I can summarize what I was taught about treating chronic pain in medical school in two sentences: Use Tylenol or Motrin. If the patient has cancer, you can use narcotics if you have to.
It is no surprise then that pain patients flock to alternative therapists for relief. Fortunately, most chronic pain can now be effectively treated.
Pain is Not the Enemy
Pain is often an indicator of underlying problems that need to be taken care of. Think of it as the red, flashing warning light on your dashboard telling you that something urgently needs your attention. To simply mask the pain with medication would be like covering up your “low gas” warning light because it was annoying you. Aside from turning off the pain signal, it is also important to understand that pain is trying to tell you what your body needs. When this is addressed, the pain usually goes away. While the underlying problems are being treated, it is also necessary to turn off or mask the pain so that you can be comfortable going about your day-to-day activities.
The Pain Beneath
There are usually four key areas that need to be treated in order to eliminate muscle/myofascial and nerve pain. It helps to remember the acronym SHIN which stands for Sleep, Hormonal support, treating Infections, and Nutritional support.
Sleep: Patients in pain frequently suffer from insomnia. Your body’s repair cycle occurs during sleep, and you need eight to nine hours of sleep a night for optimal healing. Your pain will simply not go away until you regularly get eight to nine hours of deep sleep a night.
Many natural supplements that are very effective for promoting sleep also directly help pain, such as the herbs wild lettuce, Jamaican dogwood, theanine, hops, valerian, and passionflower. Nutrients can also be helpful, such as magnesium (take 100 mg to 300 mg), calcium (500 mg to 600 mg), 5-HTP (100 mg to 300 mg, although it takes six weeks to work), and the hormone melatonin (0.3 mg to one mg).
Hormonal deficiencies: Hormonal status needs to be assessed by a medical professional, with symptoms then treated accordingly. Unfortunately, many physicians do not yet realize that lab tests for hormonal problems are not reliable.
If you are tired, achy, and cold-intolerant, or if you are suffering from sudden weight gain and/or brain fog, you may require a trial of natural thyroid hormone.
If you get irritable when you are hungry (hypoglycemia), dizzy when you stand, crash with stress, or if you have low blood pressure, consider using a product to help support the adrenal gland.
If you are a woman whose pain gets worse in the days leading up to your period, consider natural estrogen supplements. This hormone has been found to be fairly safe with the benefits well outweighing the potential harm, and is very useful for treating pain and poor energy levels when used in low doses.
Unusual infections: Yeast overgrowth is the most common and therefore the most important infection to treat. Avoid sugar, take an acidophilus supplement, and consider natural antifungals. When yeast infections are treated properly, chronic sinusitis and spastic colon will also usually go away.
Nutritional inadequacies: You need to give the body the nutritional building blocks it needs to heal, otherwise it cannot even begin to get well. B vitamins, antioxidants, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and amino acids are especially important. For arthritis, try glucosamine sulfate (500 mg three times per day) or MSM (1.5 grams to three grams a day). Within six weeks, most people’s arthritis improves markedly. For nerve pain, supplement with lipoic acid, taking 300 mg three times a day for at least six weeks.
Using fibromyalgia as a model for widespread myofascial pain, our research team at the Annapolis Center for Effective CFS/Fibromyalgia Therapies in Maryland did a placebo-controlled study treating sleep, hormonal deficiencies, infections, and nutritional deficiencies. The average improvement in quality of life was 90 percent.
It is not uncommon for people suffering from chronic pain to experience sexual dysfunction and loss of libido. Pain can lower testosterone levels, as can conventional pain relief treatments. Natural testosterone (available by prescription from holistic practitioners) has been shown to decrease pain. Anti-depressant medication may also cause sexual dysfunction, and the herb Ginkgo biloba (120 mg twice a day) can often reverse this after six weeks.
Usually, depression can be reversed naturally by supplementing with one tablespoon of fish oil daily, the herb St. Johns Wort (1,000 mg to 2,000 mg a day), 5-HTP (200 mg to 400 mg a day), and getting regular exercise if possible. The mineral rubidium (500 mg daily) can also help alleviate depression, although it takes one month to work. Studies by Dr. John Sarno, professor of clinical rehabilitation medicine at New York University School of Medicine, have shown that emotional stress can also contribute to pain. He found that the mind often decreases the blood flow to areas of the body because of repressed anger, with pain manifesting itself as a distraction from uncomfortable emotions. To overcome this, learn to “feel” and express your feelings.
If Pain Persists…
There are literally hundreds of natural therapies that can be tailored to your specific type of pain.
Herbal helpers: Three of the most effective natural general pain herbs are willow bark, boswellia, and tart cherry.
Willow bark: The original source of aspirin, when willow bark has been used on its own it has been found to be much safer and more effective. Many studies have been done using willow bark, and they consistently show its effectiveness in reducing pain. In two separate studies by S. Chrubasik – one reported in the American Journal of Medicine in 2000, and the other in Phytomedicine in 2001 – patients with severe chronic lower back pain were given willow bark extract with 240 mg of salicin. After four weeks, 40 percent were pain free, with improvements evident after one week of treatment. In those patients receiving standard orthopaedic care and painkillers for four weeks, only 18 percent were pain free. In addition, in contrast to aspirin, no adverse effects on the stomach lining were observed with willow bark.
Boswellia: Also known as frankincense, boswellia has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. In a study undertaken by N. Kimmatkar and associates and reported in Phytomedicine in 2003, boswellia was shown to be helpful in treating both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, with the pain index often falling by 90 percent after eight weeks. Boswellia has also been demonstrated to have significant anti-inflammatory properties and is helpful in treating asthma and colitis as well as pain. A common dose is 350 mg three times a day.
Cherry fruit extract: Containing compounds that inhibit inflammation, cherry fruit extract has been shown in studies to be as effective as ibuprofen. In particular, cherries possess both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
In addition, do not forget how powerful manipulative therapies such as acupuncture, body and energy work can be in treating pain, especially when combined with the above therapies. You’ll be amazed at how even pain that has lasted decades can disappear when the underlying problems are taken care of with natural therapies.