With the opioid crisis reaching nearly every community and family in the U.S., pain management has become one of the most discussed medical issues. For many people, pain is an inescapable part of their lives and no one can blame them for seeking relief from it. In fact, most people will experience some chronic pain. For example, experts believe that as many as 80% of people will experience back pain during their lives.
Pain is the uncomfortable sensation that occurs when the nervous system needs to alert the brain that something is wrong. Most frequently, pain arises from either tissue damage, such as broken bones, burns, tumors, and inflammation, or nerve damage, such as that caused by pinched nerves, diabetes, shingles, and multiple sclerosis. Pain can be acute, meaning that it subsides, or chronic, meaning that it is continuous.
Addressing and managing pain raises many difficult issues. On the one hand, the medical profession and the public agree that addressing pain is one of the most important roles doctors fulfill. On the other hand, many believe that prescription pain medications have at least contributed to, if not fueled, the opioid crisis. This raises the question: what options are available to treat pain without drugs? Here are five drug free methods for treating pain:
Fix the Cause
One principle of an integrated physical medicine practice is to treat the whole person rather than just focusing on one aspect of him or her. Associated with this philosophy is the idea that rather than focusing on treating symptoms, like pain, an effort is made to find the root cause of the pain. By treating the condition causing pain, the pain is eliminated.
For example, when a person suffers nerve pain in his or her legs resulting from a bulging or herniated disc, one treatment may be to prescribe an opiate like oxycodone. The oxycodone binds to opiate receptors in the brain causing the patient to perceive the pain differently and triggers a release of dopamine creating a euphoric feeling. To be clear, the disc is still damaged and the nerve pain is still there. However, the combination of the change in pain perception and the euphoria essentially allows the patient to “ignore” the pain.
By contrast, integrated physical medicine would seek to relieve the bulging or herniated disc, thereby causing a reduction in the severity of its effects, such as nerve pain in the legs. Examples of possible treatments include therapeutic massage therapy, acupuncture, osteopathic manipulative treatment, physical therapy, and posture correction. By treating the disc that is impinging on nerves and causing the leg pain, the severity of the leg pain should be reduced.
Acupuncture has been practiced in China for centuries. Its basis in traditional Chinese medicine arose from the worldview espoused by Taoism in which qi, meaning life energy, flows through meridians in the body. Flow of qi could be altered by applying pressure (in acupressure), needles (in acupuncture), or heat (in moxibustion) at 365 points on the body where the meridians could be accessed. Treatment of specific illnesses, diseases, and pain was associated with specific points or sets of points. Modern acupuncture arises from these same points, which subsequent work in the 1950s correlated with pain trigger points.
What we eat has a profound effect on our health. Integrated physical medicine includes all those parts of our lives that can have an impact on pain. For example, some foods are known to reduce inflammation, while others are known to exacerbate it. Drug free pain management for someone with rheumatoid arthritis could include eating more foods with anti-inflammatory properties and fewer foods that contribute to inflammation.
Massage therapy is most commonly associated with loosening tight muscles. However, therapeutic massage therapy can also break up adhesions (another name for scar tissue) in the muscles and increase blood flow to specific muscles or muscle groups. Lymphatic drainage massage can aid the body in the circulation of lymph, a bodily fluid responsible for ridding the body of toxins and waste.
Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (or OMT)
OMT is used by osteopathic doctors in integrated physical medicine practices. The guiding principle of OMT is to manipulate the spine and other parts of the body to aid the nervous and circulatory system so the body can heal itself.