Do-It-Yourself Pain Relief
More than 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. For people who suffer from mild to moderate chronic pain, medication may offer relief. But many people find they can gain long-term control over their pain through many complementary methods like heat or cold application, music, relaxation, exercise, meditation, acupuncture, and a positive attitude.
"For the vast majority of people who have chronic pain, there just aren't any pharmacologic or physical interventions that can totally eliminate the pain," says University of Washington (Seattle) pain management expert Dennis C. Turk, PhD.
"Pain is a chronic condition, just like hypertension or diabetes," Dr. Turk explains. "When you have a chronic condition, you need to do more things for yourself. It's going to last a long time. It's best to help yourself and learn to self-manage and control your pain."
In addition to traditional pain relievers, nondrug methods of pain relief may help you gain that control. Some techniques—such as imagery and the use of hot and cold—relax the muscles, help you sleep, and distract you from symptoms. Others, such as music, movies, and recorded comedy routines, take your mind off your physical complaints, as does losing yourself in a good book.
While some remedies require little expertise or help from others, some may require instruction from a professional. Dr. Ronald Glick, is the director of the University of Pittsburgh Pain Evaluation and Treatment Center. Dr. Glick recommends that patients seek advice from a chronic pain specialist who can coordinate all aspects of management, including physical therapies and psychological techniques.
While these pain relief techniques help many people with chronic pain, they are not cures for pain.
Heat and Cold
"The most important thing about heat and cold is that it gives a sense of control," Dr. Turk says. "They are things you can do yourself to help relieve the pain, which can immediately reduce the emotional stress."
"Heat and cold can be quite helpful for people with musculoskeletal conditions," says Dr. Turk. "Something as simple as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel can be a useful self-management technique that relieves muscle tension in the back, neck, and shoulders."
Most of us are familiar with holding an ice pack on a twisted ankle or lying on a heating pad for a sore back. But hot and cold treatments can be used in other ways. Moist heat, which is often more effective than dry heat, can be applied with a warm towel or a soak in the tub. An elastic bandage can hold an ice pack in place. A small paper cup filled with water and kept in the freezer becomes an excellent tool for localized cold massage, while iced washcloths can cover a larger area.
Apply heat or cold therapy for periods not to exceed 15 minutes. Allow the area to return to normal body temperature before reapplying the therapy. Some people obtain added relief by alternating heat and ice. Others use heat before exercising and ice after.
Always place a towel between the cold or heat and the skin. Never lie directly on a heating pad, and if it feels too warm, take it off. Don't combine heat with pain relieving salves, such as mentholated ointments and aspirin creams.
The "relaxation response," is a term coined by Herbert Benson, MD, of the Mind-Body Medical Institute in Boston. It is an array of beneficial physiologic effects associated with focused relaxation. Some of which may mitigate the perception of pain. For best results, make relaxation a part of your daily routine.
There are a number of ways to invoke the relaxation response, and many audiotapes are available to help. One popular approach is to assume a comfortable position, take several deep breaths, and then focus on your breathing, or a word or sound, while passively avoiding intruding thoughts.
Muscle Relaxation Exercises
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that may be effective for both muscle spasm pain and stress reduction.
"Relaxation skills are useful in reducing muscle tension, and can help reduce frustration and some of the stress," says Jennifer Markham, PhD, at the University of Pittsburgh Pain Clinic. Progressive muscle relaxation involves focusing your attention on each muscle group until it feels heavy and relaxed. You usually begin in the feet and gradually progressing upward.
Imagery, which often accompanies the management of pain through relaxation, allows you to visualize what it would be like to "let the pain go." If you know what is causing the pain—for instance a pinched nerve in the spine—the idea is to picture the encroaching vertebral space opening and freeing the trapped nerve. By calling on a variety of senses, you can take yourself to a favorite place, like the beach or the mountains. Music, nature sounds, and instructional tapes make it easier for beginners to escape to a mental paradise.
"Relaxation techniques redirect your thinking from physical pain and onto something else," says Penney Cowan, founder and executive director of the American Chronic Pain Association. "Imagining the beach, the sun on your face, and the warmth of the sand helps divert your mind from how much your head is hurting."
Biofeedback offers a measurable response to relaxation and imagery techniques. Through the use of sensors connected to a computer, you receive visual or auditory cues that indicate an increase or decrease in muscle tension, heart rate, and skin temperature. Using this feedback, you train yourself to control body functions that you normally don't even think about. Biofeedback may be useful in chronic pain or other conditions associated with muscle spasm or tension, like some headaches.
Although you may not feel like getting off the couch because you hurt so much, exercising within the confines of your physical limitations can decrease pain. Why? The reasons are complex, but one prominent theory is that exercise releases endorphins, which are natural pain relieving chemicals in your brain.
"Exercise is absolutely critical," says Dr. Turk. "The type of exercise will depend on the condition, but as a general rule of thumb, the more active you remain and the more you use your muscles, the better off you're going to be."
A physical therapist can tailor an initial exercise plan based on your capacity to exercise, and then gradually make recommendations for increasing how much you do and for how long. Pain experts recommend pacing activities. Overdoing it on good days can come back to haunt you later. It's fine to cut back on your exercise during a flare-up of your pain, but it's important to resume your exercise routine as soon as you feel better.
Acupuncture is a form of Chinese Medicine. It involves insertion of very thin needles into the skin at different and very specific points of the body. It has been shown to be effective for treatment of chronic back pain and some forms of pain resulting from nerve damage. It requires several treatments, usually between 2-5 before a response can be seen. Results of acupuncture also largely depend on the skills of the acupuncturist.
The benefits of meditation go beyond relaxation response. The studies using fMRI techniques show that daily meditation may be an excellent tool in fighting chronic pain. There are a variety of different meditation techniques and one should choose a mediation style that is comfortable for him or her. Meditation is not a religious practice and can be done easily in a privacy of one’s home.
Hypnosis has nothing to do with popular images of stage performance. It was first utilized as a therapeutic modality more than 100 years ago. It is a well documented technique that can be useful in chronic pain management. It is done by a trained and licensed therapist. The exact way by which hypnosis works is not fully understood. It induces the state of focused awareness, which is known to alleviate many forms of pain.
Attitude and Communication
How you think about your aches and discomforts, your level of anxiety and depression, your expectations, and your ability to cope determines how much pain you feel. Cognitive-behavior modification techniques help change unhealthy attitudes and habits that can develop when pain is chronic.
Concentrate on your abilities and find pleasure in the things you can do rather than dwelling on activities that have become difficult because of your pain. Communicate with family members and explain how you're feeling. Don't expect loved ones to read your mind.
"Psychology helps people begin to understand they do have some control, even if they don't have a magic wand to make the pain go away," says Dr. Markham. "When they realize they have some control [over their pain], it gives them hope."
American Chronic Pain Association
American Pain Foundation
National Institutes of Health
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Last reviewed March 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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