Chronic Pain: Learning To Manage It Naturally

When you have fibromyalgia, it’s likely you will experience pain in varying degrees. Some episodes of pain may be mild and brief, but for many people pain is something they live with on a daily basis for a long period of time. However much pain you experience, you will want to learn to manage it as much as possible for personal comfort and to maintain a quality of life. Pain management can be accomplished through the use of various pharmaceuticals, both prescribed and over-the-counter (OTC), and through natural methods like hydrotherapy and massage.

Defining Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can be divided into 2 essential types: chronic pain lasting a minimum period of time and chronic pain syndrome.[1]  Generally, to be called “chronic” the pain lasts longer than 6 months and recurs frequently.  Chronic pain syndrome refers to pain recurring frequently for longer than 6 months and exhibiting multiple symptoms. The source of chronic pain can be neurological and physical, and exacerbated by emotional stress. While chronic pain syndrome tends to be more difficult to treat than pain as a single symptom, both forms of pain can be addressed through both conventional and natural methods. For fibromyalgia pain, the symptoms must be present for at least 3 months.

Defining “Natural Methods”

Natural treatment methods refer to methods that are not considered to be conventional medical treatments. Conventional medicine usually involves using prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals in the form of pills, tablets, and injections to help reduce the effects and symptoms of a disease, which in this case is fibromyalgia. Conventional medicine also tends to work within limits of proven therapies as to the types of procedures or treatments a doctor is willing to prescribe or use.

Natural methods may be alternative, complementary and/or holistic treatments that encourage the body to use its self-healing abilities. These methods don’t involve the use of manmade substances as medications. Natural methods may include, but are not restricted to, the use of herbs, body manipulation, traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), exercise, supplements and diet. The methods described in the following sections are among the most popular natural methods for fibromyalgia.  When used as complementary treatments, they are being used in conjunction with conventional medical treatments, which is sometimes necessary.

Acupuncture

This is a common alternative treatment for chronic pain. A practitioner will insert several thin needles into skin or tissue, placing them in certain spots to block pain transmission. As traditional Chinese medicine, it is an ancient healing practice that is getting the attention of conventional medicine for pain control. One of the reasons it is believed that acupuncture works is because it’s a holistic treatment that involves the mind and body. Acupuncture is a blend of science and psychology. The acupuncturists must know exactly where to place the needs to block pain and to stimulate pain blocking through the release of endorphins, while the patient must believe pain relief will be found in the flow of energy through the energy channels. The average treatment lasts 15 minutes to one-half hour. You will probably require 6 to 12 treatments over a 3 month period to determine if this procedure will help reduce chronic pain.

Acupuncture may or may not be accompanied by other forms of traditional Chinese medicine. These may be herbal preparations, dietary modifications and moxibustion – the burning of moxa close to the skin’s surface near the source of pain.

Review of the available studies looking at using accupuncture for fibromyalgia treatment showed that most patients did have relief of pain immediately after the treatment. However, there was no evidence of improved fatigue, sleep, or long term functioning.

Chiropractic Manipulation

Chiropractic manipulation is the physical manipulation of body parts in order to achieve a release of tension by aligning the various components of the skeletal and nervous system.[2]  The release of tension may reduce pain. This method has proven to be most effective when used on a patient that has pain in the neck and/or shoulders. It’s important to use a chiropractor that is state licensed, highly skilled and familiar with fibromyalgia.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine or herbalism is the specific use of herbs to help ease and manage pain. The herbs are administered with the intent they will perform functions similar to conventional medicines but with fewer possible side effects. Different herbs address different issues. Some may be used safely and effectively internally, while others are good for external use only e.g. capsaicin cream. Common herbs used in fibromyalgia treatments include St. John’s Wort, ginseng, and garlic. Turmeric has gotten a lot of attention also because it contains curcumin which research is reporting seems to be an anti-inflammatory. However, one of the hallmarks of fibromyalgia is that it not an inflammatory condition, which makes this treatment potentially less useful.

Herbs should only be used after consultation with a doctor because not all herbs can be taken safely depending on your medical symptoms and condition. There are also concerns about combining some herbs with conventional medications and/or other herbs. The effectiveness of herbs is also an issue for some medical professionals with research remaining uncertain.[3] Always talk to your doctor and herbalist before you mix and match herbs or herbs and medications.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is a method of disease treatment that involves the administering of natural substances for healing. The substances are usually in tablet form. The substances chosen are matched to your needs, and they are meant to trigger your body’s natural healing processes. Homeopathic remedies like Arnica Montana or Rhus toxicodendron may help you control your pain naturally. Once again, before using homeopathic remedies, it’s important to talk to your doctor, as well as the homeopath. While you may purchase some products online or at a store that is selling health products, it is generally better to seek the help of a professional homeopath who has studied the possible side effects of various homeopathic remedies. Be aware that there are no studies that show these treatments are any more effective than placebo.

Hydrotherapy

Water can buoy the body while you perform various forms of exercise. The exercise can reduce physical strain, stress and pain. The water is soothing on the skin and that may also help ease pain. Hydrotherapy can be done in a large or small pool with the guidance of a therapist who specializes in water therapy, or you can learn how to exercise in water on your own. Most fitness centers with indoor pools offer water aerobics or fitness classes. In one 16 week trial looking at aquatic exercise therapy, the researchers found that patients had decreased tenderpoints, improved sleep quality, improved cognitive function, and overall exercise capacity compared to those who did not participate in aquatic therapy.

Massage

Massage is one way of reducing or managing pain. It is the manipulation of the soft tissue in your body. The rubbing and kneading can relieve pain, muscle spasms, stiffness, tension, stress and promote relaxation. It works on both a physical and emotional level to help you cope with chronic pain. Massage methods that are suitable to help relieve pain include:

  • Swedish Massage
  • Deep Tissue Massage
  • Shiatsu
  • Acupressure
  • Sports Massage
  • Myofascial Release
  • Trigger Point Therapy

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathic medicine believes that each person has self-healing abilities. It is a comprehensive medicine that relies on medical scientific and research evidence for guidance, but only natural treatments are used unless conventional medicine is required for the person’s well-being. The natural treatments administered by a physician include nutrition, herbs, botanical supplements, exercise and other lifestyle changes. The goal is to treat the whole person which means physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of a person may be addressed. Many fibromyalgia patients have found chronic pain relief through naturopathy because of its comprehensive approach. The trained physician in this area of medicine is called a naturopathic doctor.

Physical therapy (PT)

There are various types of physical therapy programs that can improve mood, physical conditioning and joint flexibility. In return, chronic pain may be eased and better managed. The programs generally involve exercises that have proven to provide relief from the stiffness, pain, tightness and physical stress brought on by fibromyalgia. There are several studies that show improvement in fibromyalgia symtpoms using the physical therapy listed below.

  • Pilates – Slow controlled movements help to improve posture and increase flexibility as well as increase stamina.
  • Tai Chi – This low-impact slow-motion graceful form of martial arts may be exactly what you need to help manage pain. It is easy on your body, teaches breathing, and addresses the mind-body connection by incorporating meditation. Tai chi can also improve sleep quality which can lead to better pain management also.
  • Yoga – Yoga is an exercise form that incorporates a combination of body stretching and mental relaxation. It is a popular type of exercise because all ages can successfully master the moves. Yoga can contribute to a reduction in pain by relaxing the major muscle groups as you take in deep and rhythmic breaths. When starting a yoga class, you should inform the instructor that you have fibromyalgia. The instructor can insure that your exercises and stretches will be directed towards helping you ease chronic pain.

Supplements

Supplements may be herbal or dietary and have become a popular way of addressing a host of medical issues including fibromyalgia. Supplements include everything from fish oil to hormones that occur naturally within your body. The supplements that can help you successfully reduce or prevent pain include vitamin B and D, magnesium, S-Adenosyl methionine and others. Your choice of supplements will depend a lot on your particular pain symptoms. Consult your doctor who can make recommendations and balance supplements with your other treatments. Supplements are a fast growing business which results in easy availability, but there are issues concerning quality and actual effectiveness.[4]

Conclusion

There are many different ways of treating and managing your chronic pain naturally. While natural methods may prove to be effective in many instances, it may also be beneficial to combine both conventional and natural methods to achieve the highest level of chronic pain relief. Research indicates the two approaches are easily complementary and not exclusive.[5]  The first step is to talk to your doctor in-depth about your chronic pain.

References

[1] Hall, MB (2009). The Fibromyalgia Controversy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

[2] Marek, CC (2004). The First Year: Fibromyalgia. New York: Marlowe and Co.

[3] V. De Silva, V; El-Metwally, A; Ernst, E; Lewith, G; Macfarlane, GJ; and on behalf of the Arthritis Research Campaign working group on complementary and alternative medicines (2010).  “Evidence for the Efficacy of Complementary and Alternative Medicines in the Management of Fibromyalgia: A Systematic Review.” Rheumatology, 49(6):1063-1068.

[4] Arthritis Foundation (2006). Good Living With Fibromyalgia. Atlanta, GA: Arthritis Foundation.

[5] Arnold, LM (2009).”Strategies for Managing Fibromyalgia.” The American Journal of Medicine, 122(12, Supplement): S31-S43.

This article was originally published on July 11, 2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/7/2015