The best remedies for treating chronic pain without painkillers – from yoga to acupuncture
IT is the silent epidemic that affects more than 20million of us.
Chronic pain goes far beyond what most people understand by the term — leaving sufferers in agony every hour of every day.
It is often invisible, while disrupting daily life and triggering serious mental health problems.
Half of those dealing with chronic pain suffer depression, while two-thirds are unable to work, costing the economy £10billion a year.
The default option is painkillers. But a recent study found relying on drugs to ease pain can do more harm than good.
The NHS spends £442million a year on prescription pain relief.
But guidance from the health agency Nice suggests drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen could be fuelling addiction.
Medics increasingly say the answer is “retraining the brain”, with exercise an effective tool in pain management.
Dr Rajesh Munglani, consultant in pain medicine and spokesman for the British Pain Society, suggests even pain that is easy to diagnose can be complex to sort.
He says: “To a certain extent, we need pain. It’s a warning signal — we needed it to survive. You won’t touch fire twice if you get burned the first time.
“Pain can also help diagnose other serious conditions, from cardiovascular diseases to cancer. So it does have health benefits.”
There are different types of pain too. Most is discontinuous — such as the occasional headache or stomach ache.
But when pain is continuous, changing or severe and recurrent, it is important to see your GP.
Tom Parry, an osteopath, acupuncturist and instructor in the Wim Hof meditative technique, tells Fab Daily we are all guilty at times of leaving pain to linger instead of addressing it.
The owner of Suffolk wellness centre Livelong Ltd, Tom says: “Pain is a response to a stimulus but anyone who has lived with chronic pain will know how wearing it can be, both physically and emotionally.
“Almost all the patients I see present with some varying degree of pain. But what’s common among them is that they tend to leave pain for a long time before getting it looked at.
“People live with low-level niggles and slight pain, often for years, then seek help when it gets unbearable. In most cases, seeking help when the pain first starts makes it easier to fix.”
Dr Munglani believes we need to change how we approach treating pain while recognising that painkiller addiction is a “very serious issue” with potentially disastrous consequences.
'NEEDS TO CHANGE'
He says: “Last year, around 200 people died of a codeine overdose. So there is a drive to monitor or control over-the-counter medication.
"While it is hard for GPs to refer patients to pain clinics, the way we treat chronic and long-term pain does need to change.”
That means recognising that pain is often not a single, isolated issue — and that it can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
Dr Munglani says: “There are many treatments outside prescribing painkillers. As a pain specialist, I spend more time taking people off pain medication than I do putting them on it.
“I often prescribe or refer patients for acupuncture, osteopathy, counselling and psychological treatment.”
So as the move towards alternative pain treatment gains traction, here we look at the options . . . and we assess how successful they typically are in treating chronic pain.
PRACTITIONER Tom Parry says: “People used to view acupuncture with a slight distrust but the NHS spends around £25million on it annually and it’s incredibly valuable as a pain-management tool for a wide variety of conditions.
“We all have an ionic charge in our bodies and the acupuncture needles affect it, which can interrupt pain signals.
“It’s actually very straightforward but people can regard it with scepticism in the West despite the fact the practice is thousands of years old.”
IN this form of alternative medicine, the practitioner lays their hands on or just above the patient – promoting self-healing, or so it is claimed.
Further research is needed to assess reiki’s effectiveness in pain management but small-scale studies have found it helps with pain and anxiety.
Some NHS trusts offer it as a complementary therapy.
In 2015, Gemma Andrews was diagnosed with chronic nerve damage after a lumbar puncture.
The 26-year-old from Chester says: “At first I had acupuncture on the NHS, which was great. But the funding was withdrawn and I couldn’t afford it privately.
"Then, three years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and as well as painkillers, I’ve been using reiki.
“My mum is a qualified practitioner and it’s been really helpful in managing the pain. I have it every month and I’m on less pain medication as a result.”
‘I self-hypnotise and slow-breathe to manage arthritis’
HYPNOTHERAPIST Terry Anne Scholes, 60, from Scarborough,self-treats to manage arthritis following her diagnosis in 2017. Shesays:
"I was out and about a few years ago and my knee just sort of snapped.
"I couldn’t walk for a few weeks and an MRI scan showed I had arthritis.
"I was offered pain-killers by the GP but I wanted to look into alternatives.
"I’ve done hypnotherapy for 20 years so it seemed a natural place to start.
"I create a control centre in my body and reduce the pain with slow breathing, which gives me less tension and so less pain.
"Every time I’ve seen a doctor, they focused on pain medication. But there are other ways to manage pain – you just have to be open to the idea.
"I live near the sea and struggled getting down the cliff path.
"But with the self-hypnotherapy, I can walk down to the sea and back up the hill again. And I’m not on any pain medication at all."
PAIN treatment specialist Dr Rajesh Munglani says: “Simple lifestyle changes can be used to treat both the symptoms and cause of pain, while sleep can be beneficial too.
“Stopping smoking, losing weight, reducing alcohol intake, eating a balanced and healthy diet – these are self-care issues doctors don’t need to prescribe.
"Everyone who has a recurrent or occasional pain can practise them. Studies have found smokers suffer more pain than non-smokers.
"Walking or gardening outside are not only good cardiovascular exercise but can help patients cope with pain.
“Exercise produces endorphins and reduces stress, which allows a reduction in pain. Simple tricks can cause marked reductions too.
"In intensive care units, pictures of plants, open spaces or forests can improve the outcome from illness. Sleep is improved by turning off noise from machines.
“Better sleep helps lower stress and improve healing. It can make a huge difference to a patient’s resilience when dealing with pain.”
Osteopathy and physiotherapy
BOTH of these can help manage different types of pain.
Tom says: “Osteopathy isn’t just for neck and back pain. It can help to treat migraines, chronic pain, mobility problems and sports injuries, as well as pregnancy-related pain.”
Using a range of hands-on techniques, Tom says the aim is to look beyond the most obvious problem to find and treat the pain’s root cause.
“From there,” he adds, “we can work to prevent and manage pain, restoring your body to its natural healthy state.”
Physiotherapist Nell Mead (nellmead.com) says: “Moving well can reduce muscle tension and rigid postures, it can gradually restore the nervous system’s faith in the body and it can restore joint and muscle strength and control.
“To stay out of pain, I advocate taking your whole body through its full range of motion every day.
“The more smoothly you move and the better your balance, the less likely you are to get injured.”
‘Strength training has done the trick for my back pain’
JON AXWORTHY, a 47-year-old office worker from Plymouth, started strength-training to treat his back pain in 2018 and is now medication-free. He says:
"Like many people, I developed a bad back around the time I turned 40.
"I had episodes when I couldn’t move at all and would be heavily reliant on medication.
"After one particularly bad episode a couple of years ago, I decided to start strength and weight- training to strengthen my core and help my back.
"Since then, I haven’t had an episode at all and I’m painkiller-free.
"I used to have to be so careful with the way I moved – even getting into or out of the car could send my back into spasm.
"But since I started the strength-training, I can lift and twist and make any sudden move-ment. I don’t even get a twinge.
"I’ve been on drugs ranging from paracetamol to tramadol but I don’t need any of them now.
"I wish I’d started years ago but at least I know now how to protect my back."
Yoga and Pilates
There have been countless studies into yoga and Pilates as methods of managing pain.
An analysis of numerous studies by the Oklahoma Medical Association in 2017 found yoga beneficial for patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Pilates, meanwhile, has been found to be beneficial for back pain and mobility issues.
A 2019 study from the Boston Medical Center also found yoga helped patients with back pain sleep better.
While massage is often considered a treat, research shows it is beneficial for pain relief relating to a variety of conditions.
A US study from Duke University Medical Center found massaging helped reduce pain in patients with arthritis.
The participants were given weekly whole-body massages for two months and reported improvements in pain, stiffness and physical function.
And a study at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found massage reduced muscle inflammation following strenuous exercise.
The Wim Hof method
SPECIALIST Tom Parry says: “This is a newer way to treat pain and focuses on three principles – breathing, cold and mindset.
“The breathing exercises have been found to alter the physiology of our bodies. Research has shown higher levels of oxygen saturation make the blood more alkaline.
“That can affect the area of the brain which receives pain signals, effectively turning the volume down on your pain.”
Other studies have shown people who effectively practise the Wim Hof method can boost their immune system.
Tom says: “In 2011, Wim Hof – known as ‘The Iceman’ – showed in a study at Radboud University he could use his method to influence his autonomic nervous system – something deemed impossible before.
"The groundbreaking finding, published in the Nature and PNAS journals, led to more small-scale studies.
“In one, volunteers were split into two groups. One was trained in the Wim Hof method for ten days, while both groups were injected with E.coli.
"The group practising the Wim Hof method showed no symptoms, while the others all fell ill.
“More, larger-scale studies are needed but the Wim Hof method could prove a game-changer in the way pain is treated.”
Learn the Wim Hof method
TO perform the Wim Hof breathing method, lie down somewhere comfy, relax, close your eyes and try to clear your mind.
Fully inhale through the nose or mouth, filling the belly and chest, before exhaling through the mouth.
Repeat this 30 to 40 times in short, powerful bursts.
You might experience some lightheadedness and tingling sensations in the feet – which are normal side-effects.
After your final exhalation, inhale once more, as deeply as you can.
Let out the air then hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe again.
When you get that urge, draw in one big breath, filling your belly and chest and hold for 15 seconds before starting another full round.
Repeat three to four times.
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