We all experience pain from time to time—it’s our body’s way of alerting us to a possible injury or illness.
Chronic pain is different. The pain can persist for months or years, sometimes even after the underlying injury or illness has been treated.
While surgeries and drug therapies have their place in the treatment of chronic pain, they are not the only options available to patients. Alternative pain management therapies have gained popularity in the medical community. Particularly in the wake of the country’s opioid crisis, doctors are in need of safe, non-addictive treatments for patients suffering from chronic pain.
Alternative pain management involves using natural, low-risk methods to help reduce pain and improve overall function over time.
In part three of Florida Medical Clinic’s series on holistic health and wellness, Dr. Lakshmi Menezes explains the benefits of alternative and complementary therapies for chronic pain, and how they can be used safely and effectively under the guidance of a board-certified holistic practitioner.
What Is Chronic Pain and What Causes It?
Chronic pain is defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as pain that occurs every day or on most days for six months or longer. The CDC estimates that 20% of US adults deal with chronic pain, and 8% of US adults experience high-impact chronic pain (pain that limits life or work activities).
Chronic pain can be the result of an injury or a symptom of an underlying condition, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia. But in most cases, chronic pain has more than one cause, making it tricky to diagnose and treat.
Unlike a wound or a broken bone, doctors can’t always see the source of a patient’s pain, and so chronic pain is often referred to as an invisible disability.
What is Alternative Medicine?
Alternative medicine is any treatment that is used in place of conventional, standard practice medicine. However, as alternative medicine techniques become more mainstream, the line between “alternative” and “conventional” has become blurred. Holistic medicine doctors (board-certified physicians who aim to treat the whole person, mind, body, and spirit) commonly recommend alternative therapies to manage chronic pain.
Keep in mind that alternative medicines can also be used as complementary medicines, meaning that they are used with conventional medications. Complementary and alternative medicines are commonly referred to together as CAM.
The Case for Alternative and Complementary Treatments
Depending on the severity, chronic pain can make it difficult to carry out everyday tasks or even walk. But chronic pain doesn’t just take a physical toll on a person—it takes a considerable emotional toll, too.
The CDC has found that patients who experience chronic pain are also more likely to experience mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
While there are many negative health effects associated with chronic pain, there are also health concerns surrounding some chronic pain treatments. Opioids like codeine, fentanyl, and oxycodone can be addictive and are often misused. An estimated 8 to 12 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids develop a substance use disorder. More than 14,000 overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were reported in 2018.
Because many of the current drug therapies used to treat chronic pain are risky and fail to address patients’ mental health, there is a great need for safe and effective alternatives to pain management.
When are Alternative Medicines Recommended?
Alternative and complementary treatments may be recommended for patients who:
- Are at a high risk of developing a substance use disorder
- Experience negative side effects on traditional pain medications
- Are not getting any relief from traditional pain medications
At the end of the day, the decision to try alternative pain management techniques is a decision that should be made together with your doctor. Choosing to forego conventional treatment or try alternative pain medicines without the guidance of a physician can be dangerous and is not advised.
Benefits of Alternative Treatments for Chronic Pain
Alternative pain management therapies have a number of benefits for patients experiencing chronic pain, including:
- Fewer health risks. Alternative medicines offer a non-addictive and safe way to manage chronic pain (when approved and supervised by a licensed medical professional), which is beneficial for patients looking to avoid or reduce their dependence on prescription drugs.
- Addresses emotional health. While surgeries and drug therapies aim to treat physical pain, they do not address the mental effects of chronic pain. Alternative and integrative treatments often include mental health counseling or group therapy as part of a complete mind-body approach to pain management.
- Personalized care. A doctor who specializes in both standard and alternative pain management treatments can help patients develop a personalized pain management plan based on their individual needs.
Common Alternative Pain Management Therapies
Some of the most common alternative pain management therapies that have been deemed safe and effective for patients with chronic pain are:
- Acupuncture: Being poked with needles may sound painful, but studies have shown that acupuncture actually has the potential to relieve chronic pain by about 50%. Just make sure you’re seeing a certified acupuncturist—your doctor may even be able to refer you to one.
- Music Therapy: There is promising evidence to suggest that listening to music can help relieve chronic pain by releasing endorphins (hormones that trigger feelings of pleasure) and offering a distraction from the pain. Just be sure to keep the tunes to a reasonable volume to avoid hurting your ears.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Chronic pain is not “all in your head”; there are often psychological factors at play. Over time, chronic pain can change the way the brain processes pain and make the pain feel more intense. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, can help patients gain control over their pain and help them manage the stress, anxiety, and depression that often comes with it.
- Massage Therapy: Patients who suffer from chronic musculoskeletal pain (such as back pain or shoulder pain) may benefit from massage therapy, which works by relaxing the muscles and reducing stress.
Other alternative pain management therapies include:
- Herbal supplements (always talk with your doctor before taking supplements)
- Yoga, meditation, and other mind-body techniques
- Guided imagery
Choosing the Right Alternative Therapy For You
When it comes to alternative pain management, it’s important to work with your doctor to find the best method for you. Treating chronic pain is tricky and what works for someone else may not work for you. Your doctor will help you figure out a treatment plan that works best for you and addresses your specific type of pain.
An effective pain management plan typically includes multiple therapies, such as conventional medicine combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy or meditation combined with massage therapy.
Unfortunately, it’s common to see alternative medicines promoted on television and online that are not always safe or effective. You should always talk with your doctor before trying any alternative treatment to manage chronic pain.
Warning signs of unsafe alternative medical practices include:
- Using terms like “miracle cure” and “scientific breakthrough”, which are almost always too good to be true.
- Promoting natural treatments while attacking the scientific and medical community and claiming all traditional medicine is bad.
- The only “evidence” of the treatment’s success comes from personal stories, not from trustworthy scientific journals.
At Florida Medical Clinic, the safety and wellbeing of our patients is our top priority at all times. Dr. Menezes takes an integrative approach to medicine, combining conventional treatments with tried-and-tested complementary therapies.
Learn More About the Holistic Approach to Health
Holistic medicine—an approach to medical care that seeks to treat the whole patient, not just their symptoms—is especially important for patients suffering from chronic pain. Because every patient experiences chronic pain differently, a patient-doctor relationship that emphasizes the uniqueness of each patient goes a long way.
Learn more about the benefits of holistic medicine and alternative pain management therapies by making an appointment with Internal medicine specialist Dr. Lakshmi Menezes in Lutz or Wesley Chapel, Florida. Virtual appointments are also available.
You can also learn more by reading the other blogs in Florida Medical Clinic’s holistic health series:
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or therapies.