Conquering Chronic Pain
Written by: Stephen Durell, MTOM, R.Ac
The good news is that our bodies have an amazing, innate ability to heal and adapt. But what if you have pain that keeps coming back or just doesn't get better? Maybe you've seen your doctor, you've rested, or tried some home remedies, but it still bothers you.
Pain is a strong signal from your body that something is wrong. This is like having the check engine light come on. We don't ignore these warning lights on our cars, so why do so many people ignore these signs in their bodies? We often decide to live with pain thinking that being in pain is normal or we use treatments that simply cover up the pain, but don’t treat the cause.
So, what is your body trying to say when it hurts? Sometimes pain can be an urgent signal that you need immediate help. If you are having acute abdominal pain, chest pain, or new severe headache, you should absolutely get checked out with your doctor or even go to the ER for diagnosis. But if your pain is not signaling an emergency, there are many ways it can be addressed and perhaps even relieved for good.
Pain can be a signal that there is a problem with one of your internal organs but can show up in a distant place in the body. For instance, your right shoulder pain could be a sign that your gallbladder is not functioning well or a kidney stone may refer pain to the side and back or groin. A well-trained medical provider should be able to help you distinguish between pain of the musculoskeletal system and pain from an internal cause. In traditional Chinese medicine and Asian acupuncture styles, almost all chronic pain is from an internal imbalance. Naturopaths and functional medicine doctors are also likely to see these connections and can treat the underlying issues.
There is also a strong connection between structure and function in the body. If you have a structural problem that is so severe that your body cannot heal or adapt to it, it may need it to be surgically corrected. Many structural problems, however, are within the realm of self-healing. If your doctor has recommended pain treatments, rest, or physical therapy before surgery, it is highly likely that you would benefit from trying some other techniques to stimulate healing. It makes sense to correct alignment issues with chiropractic, physical therapy, or Feldenkrais. These treatments can be extremely effective, but if the pain continues to come back with prolonged treatment, there is certainly more going on.
If you were to take a pet with arthritic pain to the veterinarian, one of the first questions asked would be about your pet’s diet, but for humans, this often gets brushed aside or ignored completely. Pain may be your body's way of telling you that your diet is making you sick. If your diet is mostly processed food, you are not getting everything you need. Switch to a diet that is mostly or entirely whole food based, eat as much organic food as you can afford, and try to take the things out of your diet that your body cannot tolerate. Food allergy and sensitivity testing or a food elimination diet may be necessary to identify these foods.
Food can also be a huge source of toxins/ toxicity. This is another major message your body may be sending with the pain you're feeling. Toxins can be a source of inflammation. Chemicals in the foods we eat and products we use can block important chemical pathways and disrupt hormones. Simple changes to avoid chemicals in your environment include eating mostly organic food, getting a good water purifier, paying attention to how your food is stored as plastics can leach chemicals, and trying to avoid artificial cleaners, cosmetics, and household chemicals. Detoxification should be considered like getting the oil changed in your car. A good three-week detox once a year or multiple shorter programs should be sufficient. Ask your health professional about what programs they have had success with in the past. The products used in detox protocols are not all created equal.
Your body may also be using pain to tell you that your hormones are out of balance. When we hear 'hormones', we tend to think of estrogen/ progesterone and testosterone but even more often we need to focus on more fundamental hormones. Insulin, cortisol and thyroid all influence the sex hormones and on each other. In most cases, you should get these working in your body at their best before considering hormone replacement. Some hormone issues can be addressed with a detailed symptom history but lab tests will sometimes be necessary.
Immune challenges and chronic or recurrent infections may be another underlying cause of pain. Inflammation is a normal effect of your immune system's response to injury. If your immune system is not functioning optimally, you may be getting sick frequently, have chronic or recurrent infections or a diagnosis of an autoimmune condition. While chronic infections are sometimes obvious, these can be insidious when there is an imbalance in the gut flora, a parasite, or a dental infection. 80% of the immune system lives in the gut, therefore gut health should always be considered during treatment for pain.
Having inadequate circulation can cause pain as well. Just like the heart muscle has pain when the blood flow is blocked, reduced blood flow anywhere in the body can be a source of pain. This should be a consideration if you have sharp, stabbing pain, pain that does not move, or if there are areas of coldness around the pain. In addition to using heat, try a low fat/ heart healthy diet and, be physically active within your limitations.
So, what do you do?
The first steps to getting your pain under control are the same things that will keep you healthy. Transition to more of a whole food diet and drink plenty of clean water, reduce your exposure to chemicals and toxins and encourage healthy detoxification, be physically active within your capabilities and try to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, get plenty of restorative sleep, and take stock of your life. If there are stresses that you can get rid of, do it. Figure out ways to manage life's stresses that will invariably still be there. Learn how to meditate and do deep breathing exercises.
Acupuncture can be an amazing treatment for pain. If you are looking to balance organ systems, stimulate detoxification, balance hormones, stimulate immunity, and promote circulation; you should be looking to Asian styles of acupuncture. While they use an entirely different language, treating these underlying issues are built into their theory and application. Asian styles of herbal medicine have the same benefits. Acupuncture schools located in the United States have become very good and you should be able to find qualified people practicing in larger cities. Look for someone with 3-4 years of graduate level education and a national certification.
Naturopathic doctors, with similar levels of schooling, will work on the causes listed above and your underlying imbalances as well through other forms of treatment. They will likely use herbs, nutrition, and lifestyle modification to correct these problems. They can also do functional lab testing to take a deeper look at hormones, your gut health and more. Functional medicine is gaining a lot of attention in recent years. For some situations, the lab testing can be essential for directed treatment. If you go this route, make sure your doctor has adequate training and experience, as there are not any standards in place yet.
Remember, your body has an amazing ability to heal and adapt. If you have chronic pain, you probably have several underlying causes. The same things causing your pain are likely to cause other problems if left unchecked. A good treatment should not only give pain relief but should take care of the body and make you healthier overall. The treatment should be temporary but the results lasting.