In the latest chapter of our nation’s opioid epidemic story, shocking statistics have been revealed about the large numbers of prescription pain killers sent to small town pharmacies, directed by levels far above the provider and their prescription pad. The level of maleficence in this tale is astounding but if we can look beyond that, the underlying question really becomes why are Americans in so much pain?What kinds of signs, symptoms and complaints led to these prescriptions?
As a provider who focuses on following the whole journey of a person’s health issue, we know that the stories behind these pain prescriptions varied widely. While a prescription may not have been the best solution for all of these patients, the addictive nature of these medications meant that they became the solution for many.
Now that we are able to see this hubris, we are more inclined to take a step back and try to better understand pain and how best to address it when it happens.
The Various Types of Pain
Pain is….well, painful! It can be surprising, consuming and distracting; especially when it’s unexpected. The discomfort and sense of being prisoner in one’s own body can urge us to do whatever it takes to make it go away. From a naturopathic perspective, however, pain is often our body’s attempt to communicate with us. It’s an effort by the body to have us pay attention to a system or process that is ill or not functioning. While unpleasant, it is often important to bring awareness to the pain in effort to understand what the body is communicating. Of course there are times when quickly lessening the pain with treatment is important or imperative but if a symptom of pain is new, understanding the quality and sensation of the pain can provide clues on how best to treat it. This is because pain can come about for different reasons – inflammation, tissue damage, and/or a variety of different nervous system involvements. Different causes can necessitate different treatments.
As I said, there are certainly times when treating pain with prescription medications is critical but there are other times when pain is created due to dysfunction or chronic inflammation. If we believe in the body’s inherent ability to heal and we are committed to self-care practices, by addressing the root cause of the pain, the discomfort will die down and the function will improve. Eventually the pain can, and will, disappear and using pain as a barometer through the treatment can help to ensure that a more natural approach to treatment pain is working.
Complementary medicine has a wide variety of modalities that can help alleviate pain. Acupuncture may be the most well researched but reiki, homeopathy, herbal medicine, CBT therapy and osseous manipulations can play a role as well. A treatment for nerve pain may be different from one for pain related to emotional trauma which can differ still from inflammatory pain.
Because conventional medicine is more limited in its treatments for pain, doctors may not always help patients parse apart the type of pain they are experiencing. If it’s your first time experiencing significant pain, you may not know. Lab work can be helpful in some cases as well. Inflammatory markers and even a standard complete blood count can sometimes provide clues as to what’s contributing to the pain if this connection has not yet been made. By identifying the cause of the pain, the treatment can be individualized.
Pain as a Messenger
The cause of pain, however, is not always clear. Certain types of pain are not well understood and pain that persists can be challenging to treat. In the wake of the opioid crisis, research into complementary approaches to pain management have shined a bright light on the role that mindfulness practices can have in helping with symptoms of pain. If you’ve ever experienced excruciating pain, you know that being calm and “zen” in the midst of this is much easier said than done but with practice, our relationship to the pain plaguing us starts to shift. It may not be an overnight fix but it is a much better option than addiction to pain killers and has many other benefits beyond lessening pain. If our body is using pain as a messenger, the lesson may very well be this one: it’s time to slow down and breathe deeply.
When I asked my patients who are experiencing pain about the thoughts they are having, they commonly share fears and concerns that the pain will not improve. It is interesting how the experience of pain can shift us into catastrophic thinking. This is one reason that using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be so helpful. Meditation offers similar benefits. By allowing our brain to take a break from thinking about the pain, we actually can help to re-wire our nervous system, thereby putting less emphasis on the experience of pain which, in turn, actually lessens the pain!
These are uncertain times we are living in and pain can heighten fears we have about our body, our health and about the future. Addressing these fears must be part of our approach to pain. Pain treatment must be holistic. It must help to identify the cause and quality of the pain and use this information in determining the best approach to treatment. Using different therapeutics and techniques, in addition to exploring our thinking about the pain, can help us to avoid relying on a single opioid agent. A holistic approach to pain management is not only less likely to result in addiction but can actually provide an opportunity to come to better know our own body and how it functions.