Guided imagery and Feldenkrais, the therapies that helped Toussaint, are only two out of more than a dozen alternative therapies that have been scientifically documented to ease chronic pain when drugs can’t. And they frequently can’t, says James Dillard, M.D., D.C., coauthor of The Chronic Pain Solution (Bantam, 2003). “Even if we prescribe medication as well as we can, on average we are still only going to take away between 50 and 60 percent of your pain.”
This is not to say that drugs have no place in pain treatment. Experts agree that medication is a necessary and sometimes lifesaving part of the pain-management equation. “People need to function in their lives,” says David Simon, M.D., cofounder, CEO, and medical director of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California. “There’s clearly a role for appropriate pharmaceuticals.”
The latest trend, says Steven Stanos, D.O., medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Center for Pain Management, is to take a more comprehensive approach to treating chronic pain, a “bio-psycho-social approach.” The “bio,” or biological, part means treating the physical or underlying pathology—and, where possible, its root cause. The “psycho,” or psychological, part addresses the depression, fear, and anxiety that can accompany and even exacerbate the experience of chronic pain. The “social” part pertains to a patient’s ability to function, work, sustain friendships, and maintain status in society.
If a clinician ignores any of the biological, psychological, or social impacts of chronic pain, Stanos says, “it may become a struggle to successfully treat patients.”
Very few doctors have specialized training in pain management. In fact, only 3 percent of U.S. medical schools offer a separate course in it. So if you suffer from chronic pain, you’re probably going to have to become an expert yourself. “I think the person with pain should see it as a journey,” advises Simon. “They have to be the captain of that ship.”
That proposition can feel daunting enough when you’re well and helping a family member through a difficult diagnosis. But when you are the one in pain, managing your case yourself may be an overwhelming challenge. That’s why Mary Pat Aardrup, senior vice president of the National Pain Foundation, recommends enlisting a friend or family member as an advocate—someone who can help research treatment options and interview both conventional and alternative health care practitioners.
Make sure the practitioners you find are willing to work together. When everybody shares information, you’re more likely to get the most accurate diagnosis and best care. Curing the root cause may resolve the problem—as in the case of Lyme disease. But “assuming that you have a disorder for which there’s no easy medical fix,” advises Simon, “begin a process of trying to relieve yourself of that pain, starting with the most noninvasive and then gradually working your way into more invasive approaches.” If a therapy doesn’t offer relief within a few weeks, experts say, try something else.
When choosing therapies to try, “it’s important to think critically,” says journalist Paula Kamen, who wrote All in My Head (Da Capo Press, 2006), about her quest for relief from chronic daily headache. “There is so much desperation that makes us vulnerable as chronic-pain patients.” Be wary of anyone who promises to cure any problem, she says. Also, understand any risks before you participate. And remember, you can quit at any time—even in the middle of a session—if something doesn’t feel right.
Check out the chart below to learn about alternative therapies that have been shown to help relieve chronic pain. Informing yourself could be your first step on the path to a pain-free life.
Loolwa Khazzoom, who created the Dancing with Pain method of pain management, blogs about natural pain relief at www.dancingwithpain.com.
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