At the tail end of August 2009, a mysterious pain bloomed in my stomach—and changed my life forever. For over a year, I endured what seemed like endless tests, procedures, and surgeries, not to mention mind-numbing pain, and still found no relief. My surgeons and gastroenterologist had no idea what was causing the pain, so they threw their hands in the air and admitted defeat.
I had almost given up myself, but then a new GP took one look at my symptoms. “It’s all in your head,” he said, and I readied myself for a fight. But before I could respond, he clarified what he meant. He explained that anxiety was the origin of my stomach pain, and only by controlling my anxiety could I lessen my pain.
For me, chronic pain is a wall. It’s the thing I bash up against, fruitlessly and painfully, on a regular basis. I’ve used countless strategies to try to break through that wall, but the wall is strong, and my view of the other side is obscured. Like anyone with chronic pain, I’ve tried the medications. Oftentimes, they provide little to no relief. And other times, they just make things worse.
I’m not alone in my pain. Humans have been trying to manage chronic pain over the course of our existence, which means it’s unlikely there are alternatives we haven’t thought of yet. Morphine was first extracted from the opium poppy plant in 1804, but aspirin, the first manmade drug we invented to treat pain, wasn’t developed until 1853. That’s quite a long time for us to live in pain with no relief—except, that is, for what nature could provide.
The upside for our ancestors is that even though they never had access to synthetic painkillers, they also never experienced the slew of dangerous health consequences caused by opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “As many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop. In 2016, more than 11.5 million Americans reported misusing prescription opioids in the past year.”
That’s a scary statistic. Painkillers may seem like the answer, but for many of us, they’re an unhelpful tool. Even if you follow your doctor’s orders, opioids can put anyone at risk of developing an addiction. With over 100 million Americans experiencing chronic pain—and 60 percent of them experiencing pain so bad that it affects their quality of life—prescribing opioids has become the default—but one with drastic consequences. With this in mind, many patients ask if their pain is severe enough to take the risk.
Is there a natural, holistic way to treat or reduce chronic pain? After all, throughout our history we had no choice but to use natural treatment methods to treat pain, and thus there was no risk of addiction.
Whether you have debilitating migraines, an old injury that just won’t heal fully, a birth defect, or any other condition that causes regular, chronic pain, you can not only find relief with natural remedies, but you can do so without gambling your well-being.
Addressing Each of Your Needs Naturally
Treating pain naturally requires a multifaceted approach. All areas of the body that are affected must be addressed, as well as your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. One thing that I and my fellow chronic pain sufferers have to explain to loved ones time and again is that a huge part of the battle is just not giving up. Easier said than done after months of relentless pain. Eventually, chronic pain makes you feel so mentally tired and defeated that you’re at a loss of what to do anymore. Once your mental health falls apart, everything is significantly worse.
A combination of different treatment methods can and should address pain in the body, mind, and spirit. Once you find a few effective natural treatment methods that keep your particular cause of pain under control, you can keep your spirits up as well. It may take a few attempts to find something that works for you, so try to be patient. Here are a few suggestions that may help:
Finding a holistic practitioner who specializes in your type of pain or injury and letting them guide you through the healing process is a solid first step. Holistic practitioners are trained to look for ways of minimizing inflammation while feeding the injury all the repair nutrients it needs.
Mindfulness is the state of focusing in on the exact point in time you’re experiencing and pinpointing your emotions, thoughts, and physical feelings. It’s one of my favorite ways of dealing with chronic pain because it gives me a peaceful way to work through it. Oftentimes, we don’t give ourselves the time and attention that our mind and body need to accept what’s going on in our lives, and this can make our feelings even more complicated and difficult to deal with. It’s only by recognizing and accepting the state of our well-being that we can find peace in our current situation.
A variety of activities can help us achieve a state of mindfulness. These include various practices like yoga, meditation, and even the use of sensory pods to relax us into a state of heightened self-awareness. Yoga and meditation are ancient practices that have helped people clear their minds and refocus certain areas of their bodies for thousands of years—and it can certainly do the same for us today. In addition to achieving mindfulness, these practices are also a great form of exercise to stretch joints and muscles.
While you can meditate anywhere, it’s best to find an area that’s conducive to helping you focus, relax, and avoid external noises and distractions. One of the goals of meditation is to quiet the mind and silence the continuous stream of thoughts and worries that we all experience, especially when we’re in pain. Sensory pods can shut out any noise, light, and physical feelings in the body, which is great for helping the mind relax and reducing physical pain. When I’m in the throes of a migraine, the only thing that helps is reducing sensory input. Though they don’t address the cause of migraines, quiet and darkness give me great relief from the pain.
Applied directly to the skin, natural topical treatments can soothe persistent pain in the muscles and joints. Some are available in drugstores, but doctors can also prescribe certain creams, sprays, and gels that use a range of natural ingredients and create soothing sensation over the area of concentrated pain. While some of these contain synthetic medication that’s absorbed through the skin, many also contain natural substances known to soothe pain.
A few of the most common ingredients found in over-the-counter medications include:
- Counterirritants: These increase circulation in the painful area, allowing for some relief and a quicker recovery. The ingredients often consist of naturally sourced evergreen oil, camphor, and menthol.
- Salicylates: Though these chemicals are found naturally in some plants, salicylates can also be created synthetically for various products, including aspirin. Some topical creams at drugstores contain this group of chemicals, which are especially helpful in relieving joint pain.
- Capsaicin: An extract of the chili pepper plant, this natural ingredient is an irritant that produces a burning sensation when rubbed on the skin. Topical application helps manage peripheral nerve pain and joint pain.
- Cannabidiol: Increasingly used for pain relief, studies show that CBD oil may also be an effective anti-inflammatory product. When applied topically, this hemp plant extract can help those with arthritis relieve pain from inflammation.
Temperature therapies are yet another type of topical treatment for pain. Cold treatments include ice packs, chilled damp towels, or frozen vegetables. Cold packs are especially helpful for joint pain and swelling as they can constrict blood flow in these areas, which helps reduce inflammation.
Heat therapy can be used with dry heat or moist heat, although the latter often works best because it helps the heat sink into the skin and muscles more quickly. Hot baths or moist towels can help relieve sore muscles and minimize feelings of pain in other areas of the body. By widening the blood vessels, heat therapy increases the amount of blood and oxygen to painful areas, which both soothes and nourishes the injured location.
One of the most commonly prescribed treatments for chronic pain, especially from injuries or surgeries, is physical therapy. Some surgeries or injuries can result in months or even years of pain, which doesn’t subside unless methodically targeted. Physical therapy uses specific exercises to rebuild and strengthen the areas of the body that were harmed in order to build a strong foundation.
Another, less common, form of treatment for pain is music therapy, which can help with physical rehabilitation and provide emotional support. Music therapy helps patients with a large range of symptoms, including chronic pain from physical health problems. Music moves us. The right music can be an effective treatment for individuals whose mental health is suffering as a result of chronic pain. I’ve used specially designed music to ease insomnia.
It’s frustrating to think that chronic pain might become a lifelong companion, and that every day will revolve around managing it. And while opioids can provide instant relief, for me it’s just not worth the long-term risks of addiction and other consequences. I choose natural treatments. They can help mitigate most types of pain, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain. By using natural methods to treat chronic pain, I’m happier, healthier, and less afraid of the consequences of living my life.