3 Drug-Free Ways to Manage Chronic Pain

For the long haul, it may be beneficial to use non-drug therapies to ease your ache and restore your mobility.

a person sits on the floor meditating

Chronic pain affects millions of Americans. In urban areas, around 17% of people say they hurt pretty badly most or every day; in rural areas, it tops 28%. Such persistent aches and pains can arise from out-of-sorts joints and muscles or from nerve damage associated with injury, neurological disease or diabetes. Or they may be related to chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, interstitial cystitis, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and some cancers. Sometimes there is no identified cause, but that doesn't make the hurt any less real—or any less deserving of effective treatment.

Prescription pain-relieving drugs can, as you probably know, be addictive and cause more problems than they solve. Even over-the-counter pain relievers such as NSAIDs can have undesirable side effects, ranging from gastrointestinal upset to cardiovascular problems. Sometimes you may need them, but for the long haul, it may be beneficial to use non-drug therapies to ease your ache and restore mobility, energy and overall health. Fortunately, as we learn more and more about how pain operates in the body we are identifying new ways (sometimes using very old techniques) to manage it.

Reduce Inflammation Through Your Food

Pain is inflammatory. When there is an injury or irritation to a part of your body, immune-system-related healers are called in to help you heal. But if that response persists, what is intended to help you heal ends up "heating up" tissue and cells and cause more pain. And even if that chronic inflammation subsides, pain can continue because of damage done by the inflammatory response itself. So focus on actions that decrease inflammation, like making nutritious food choices.

A new study published in Nature Metabolismhas found that the typical western diet — overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids found in vegetable oils — increases the risk of chronic pain by triggering nerve dysfunction. It is particularly hurtful for people who have diabetes and obesity.

However, the researchers also found that reducing the intake of processed foods and omega-6 fatty acids and upping your intake of foods rich in omega-3s, like salmon and sea trout, can reduce or reverse pain associated with diabetes, arthritis, injury or surgery.

While you do need some omega-6 (from healthy sources like walnuts, peanut butter and tofu), most people get much more than is healthy because of a diet loaded with chips, fast food, baked goods, vegetable oils and cured meats like bacon and pepperoni. A diet that contains a ratio of two- to three-parts omega-6s to one-part omega-3s can ease inflammation-related pain.

Relax Your Body and Mind

Your response to pain happens from a combination of physical sensations and emotional reactions to the pain. That forms a feedback loop that can increase your pain sensitivity and amplify its physical and emotional effects. So relaxing both your mind and body decreases your perception of and reaction to pain.

Practices like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, progressive relaxation, and mindfulness-based stress reduction can help you by increasing blood flow to painful areas, relaxing muscles, tamping down nerve responses, and easing depression, while increasing physical functioning. Massage and acupuncture can also be very soothing.

Try out Deepak Chopra's OZtube series here for all kinds of wellness videos to match your mood and experience level.

Therapy may also be beneficial in helping you to regulate your emotions. But seeing a therapist may not be a familiar option for people. So we've got a breakdown here of what a therapist is and does and what you can gain from talking with one.

Keep Moving

It may sound counterintuitive when you're experiencing pain, but it's critical to keep your body moving. Pain can make you shrink from the world, become sedentary and increase your physical limitations. As you move less, many body parts begin to hurt more, which can trap you in a pain cycle.

Many recent studies show that low- to moderate-intensity exercise two to three times a week significantly improves pain, depression, anxiety and quality of life in chronic pain patients. The key is to work with a physical therapist to tailor a program just for you and your abilities — and to stick with it for the long haul.

How to Make Sure Your Doctor Understands You: Use a Symptom Tracker

Tracking your pain and symptoms in this chart can help you communicate effectively with your doctor about a possible condition.

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