Chronic pain goes beyond the discomfort of a moment. It becomes a constant companion, shaping daily life. And, its influence extends beyond the body, affecting mental and emotional health.
In the U.S., conventional treatments for chronic pain haven’t just failed—they’ve been catastrophic. The conventional U.S. response to chronic pain until very recently also birthed the opioid epidemic, which has devastated families and communities across the country. In 2021, more than 80,000 people are estimated to have died from opioid overdose.
Thus, an integrative medicine approach to chronic pain could not be more important. In the pursuit of a more holistic, encompassing response than the traditional healthcare system is capable of, many individuals are turning to integrative medicine.
Possible reasons for chronic pain
Chronic pain is often rooted in the “inflammatory cascade”. Inflammation, typically the body's defense mechanism against harm, can become a double-edged sword when chronic. In a healthy response, the inflammation is resolved once the threat is neutralized. However, in chronic pain conditions, the inflammatory cascade can become dysregulated, leading to persistent inflammation and contributing to pain and tissue damage.
Chronic pain is also connected to daily choices, especially in the realm of nutrition and lifestyle. Processed foods can contribute to inflammation and exacerbate pain symptoms. Similarly, poor lifestyle choices, such as sedentary habits and inadequate sleep may contribute to chronic pain. Acknowledging these links empowers individuals to make informed decisions that can positively impact their pain management journey.
While immediate relief from pain is undoubtedly a priority, true and lasting efficacy in pain management lies in addressing the root causes. Integrative medicine departs from mere symptom suppression and seeks to uncover the underlying factors contributing to chronic pain. By treating the root causes, whether they be inflammatory triggers, nutritional imbalances, or lifestyle habits, a more sustainable and comprehensive approach to pain management unfolds. It's a shift from managing symptoms to fostering genuine healing and well-being.
Pain Management Strategies
Engaging in exercise influences the way our bodies perceive and interpret pain through endorphin release, anti-inflammatory effects, and improved circulation.
Every individual's body responds uniquely to different forms and intensities of exercise. By tailoring programs to individual needs, incorporating considerations such as fitness levels, specific pain conditions, and personal preferences, we can get the most out of your movement routine as part of an overall pain management strategy.
From low-impact activities to mindful movement practices, the emphasis is on empowering people to discover what works best for them. Understanding one's body, experimenting with different forms of exercise, and incorporating enjoyable activities into a routine are essential steps in the pursuit of a personalized and effective exercise program for pain relief.
II. Mindfulness Activities
Mindfulness activities such as meditation, breath work, and gratitude practices have been shown to be quite effective in chronic pain management.
A study conducted by Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., and his colleagues in 2015 found that participants who received mindfulness as a treatment had less activation in the parts of their brains that manage pain messages. Some participants were also able to reduce or eliminate the use of pain medications through ongoing daily mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness-based Stress Relief, or MBSR, aims to alleviate stress and its detrimental effects on the body, paving the way for pain reduction and a serene mindset in patients. The approach typically incorporates meditation, mind-body practices, and gentle activities like yoga to usher in relaxation.
One clinical trial indicated that MBSR diminished both the severity of pain and the distress associated with it. Another study suggested that engaging in an MBSR program likely boosts one's ability to manage symptoms, elevates overall well-being and life quality, and results in better health outcomes.
Benefits for Chronic Pain Management
III. Integrative Therapies
In acupuncture, fine needles are strategically placed on specific points of the body, stimulating natural healing processes. Acupuncture recognizes the body as an interconnected system where the flow of energy, known as Qi, plays a vital role in health—and systematic reviews of the academic literature have supported its efficacy as a tool for reducing chronic pain.
By targeting specific points along energy pathways, or meridians, acupuncture aims to address pain symptoms and restore balance to the entire system. It's a holistic approach that recognizes the interdependence of physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Bodywork and Massage
Bodywork encompasses various therapeutic approaches that use skilled hands and intentional techniques to address tension, discomfort, and pain within the body. This includes practices such as myofascial release, trigger point therapy, and deep tissue massage. Body work can enhance circulation, reduce inflammation, and soothe sore muscles, providing immediate relief.
The therapeutic touch involved in bodywork and massage extends beyond the physical realm. It nurtures mental and emotional well-being, offering a holistic approach to pain management. By releasing physical tension, these therapies contribute to an overall sense of relaxation, stress reduction, and improved mood. The combination of physical and emotional benefits makes body work a valuable tool in the comprehensive management of chronic pain, addressing both the symptoms and the broader impact on an individual's well-being.
Integrating Therapies into a Comprehensive Treatment Plan
Acupuncture, body work, and massage are not stand-alone solutions; they can be paired with conventional approaches to pain management.
This cooperative approach recognizes that pain is multi-faceted, and addressing it requires a diverse toolkit. By weaving together these alternative therapies with conventional methods, individuals gain access to a well-rounded and personalized strategy—one that acknowledges the unique nature of their pain and seeks to holistically enhance their overall quality of life.
IV. CBD and THC
CBD and THC, both derived from the cannabis plant, offer a unique avenue for relief. Cannabinoids help with chronic pain through their interaction with the endocannabinoid system, which regulates various physiological processes, including mood, appetite, sleep, and immune function. Cannabinoids, such as CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), modulate pain signals and contribute to an overall sense of balance.
CBD, which is non-psychoactive and widely accepted for its therapeutic potential, offers anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects without the "high" associated with THC. On the other hand, THC, with its psychoactive properties, may be utilized for specific pain conditions.
Whether as standalone interventions or complementary elements alongside other treatments, cannabinoids can be incorporated into a more holistic approach to modern pain management.
V. Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN)
Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) is another approach to chronic pain management and offers nuanced benefits. Its ability to regulate the immune system and influence neural pathways makes it particularly attractive for those with persistent pain. LDN has also shown promise in aiding individuals through the process of opiate withdrawal and facilitating the tapering off of certain medications, giving it a multifaceted utility beyond chronic pain management.
By regulating the body's immune responses and interacting with endorphin receptors, LDN influences pain perception. Operating on a low-dose scale, LDN interacts with the body's endorphin system and immune function. It not only helps manage pain but also addresses underlying factors contributing to chronic pain. This aligns well with the holistic principles of integrative medicine.
Medications can offer relief, but it's essential to acknowledge their individualized nature and potential side effects. Tailoring treatment plans, encompassing lifestyle factors and alternative therapies, ensures a holistic approach.
A mindful stance involves recognizing medications as one element in a comprehensive strategy. This approach encourages regular communication with healthcare providers for personalized adjustments and periodic assessments. By integrating medications judiciously and considering the broader context of pain management, individuals can foster a balanced and effective approach that optimizes relief while minimizing potential risks.
Integrative medicine can help to unravel the complexities of chronic pain in part because it acknowledges the interconnectedness of physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
The goal is not just to manage symptoms but to foster genuine healing and extend your healthspan—the time in your life when you can live the healthiest, happiest version of yourself. This is a sharp departure from conventional methods—it offers a path towards lasting relief and an improved quality of life.
If you'd like to explore how integrative medicine can transform your pain management journey, we invite you to take the next step and schedule a free, 15-minute consultation with Dignity Integrative.