Whether you tweaked your back trying Swedish Death Cleaning or have gritted your teeth through a nagging sciatica for years, can we all agree that dealing with physical pain occupies far too much of our time?
Great, so we’re on the same page. On any given night, some kind of pain or physical discomfort is keeping 42 million America adults from getting a full night’s sleep, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM). And in one national AAPM survey. the majority of chronic pain sufferers said their pain impacts their enjoyment of life.
Clearly, we need some relief. Not so long ago, your doctor may have given you a prescription for a pain killer. But with doctors, Medicare and insurance companies pulling way back on prescription opioids, there’s newfound interest in natural remedies. “Chronic pain is a disease,” says anesthesiologist Jianguo Cheng, M.D., Ph.D., president of the AAPM and director of the Cleveland Clinic Multidisciplinary Pain Medicine Fellowship Program. “But pharmacological treatments are not the first, or even second or third, line of treatment.”
What should you try first? Consider these evidence-backed alternatives. For best results you’ll probably need to mix and match these options.
Acupuncture. No longer considered a fringe practice, there’s solid evidence that supports the use of this traditional Chinese medicine for help alleviating chronic low-back or osteoarthritis knee pain. Trained practitioners insert thin needles through your skin to stimulate specific points on the body.
Aromatherapy. Essential oils made from certain plant extracts can alter how you perceive pain and even improve your mood. It’s not the scent that’s working its magic, rather the plant chemical that, when inhaled or absorbed, reaches the part of the brain that controls instincts. You can use a diffuser, mister, or apply diluted oils directly onto your pressure points. Several studies show aromatherapy’s benefits for easing joint pain.
Biofeedback. Sensors are attached to your skin to monitor your breathing, blood pressure, muscle activity and other body responses. (You can do this in a therapist’s office, or under their guidance.) You learn how to read your body’s cues and are taught different relaxation exercises (such as visualization or muscle relaxation) to help you control your body’s response to pain signals. In one study on adults with chronic upper body pain, 86 percent of participants participating in biofeedback therapy reported reduced pain.
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT won’t change your day-to-day level of pain, but it can help you modify your response to pain. In an ongoing study at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, 1,000 patients experiencing non-cancer-related chronic pain, are learning new behaviors to help them reframe their thinking and responses to pain.
Massage. As if you needed a reason to book a massage, studies show a relaxing rub down can bring noticeable relief for those dealing with conditions like chronic low-back pain, neck pain and fibromyalgia. To get the most benefit, you should try massage in addition to other therapies, like physical therapy.
Physical therapy. You’re forgiven if your ongoing pain leaves you clinging to your couch or bed. But the truth is cutting back on physical activity can lead to more pain and emotional worries. Working with a physical therapist, people with chronic pain strengthen and stretch the parts of the body that are giving them problems, with an end goal of having the pain go away, rather than be masked with a painkiller.
Water therapy. Tension, fatigue, and a foul mood float away when you put your body through its paces in a pool. Credit goes to the pressure the water puts on the body and the change in temperature.
Yoga. There are reams of studies on yoga, but very few that explore its benefits for pain relief. But that’s changing. Recent studies have shown that certain asanas, done regularly, help people with chronic back pain or various types of arthritis better control their pain. If you’ve never done yoga before, it’s best to take a few classes taught by an instructor who’s familiar helping people with different physical limitations.