Alternative Treatments for Chronic Pain
In the past decade, strong evidence has accumulated regarding the benefits of mind-body therapies, acupuncture, and some nutritional supplements for treating pain. Other alternative treatments such as massage, chiropractic therapies, therapeutic touch, certain herbal therapies, and dietary approaches have the potential to alleviate chronic pain in some people. However, the evidence supporting these therapies is less concrete.
Mind-Body Therapies for Chronic Pain
Mind-body therapies are treatments that are meant to help the mind's ability to affect the functions and physical symptoms of the body. Mind-body therapies use various approaches including relaxation techniques, meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis. Relaxation techniques can help alleviate discomfort related to chronic pain.
Visualization may be another worthwhile pain-controlling technique. Try the following exercise: Close your eyes and try to call up a visual image of the pain, giving it shape, color, size, motion. Now try slowly altering this image, replacing it with a more harmonious, pleasing -- and smaller -- image.
Another approach is to keep a diary of your pain episodes and the causative and corrective factors surrounding them. Review your diary regularly to explore avenues of possible change. Strive to view pain as part of life, not all of it.
Electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback may alert you to the ways in which muscle tension is contributing to your pain and help you learn to control it. Hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis may help you block or transform pain through refocusing techniques. One self-hypnosis strategy, known as glove anesthesia, involves putting yourself in a trance, placing a hand over the painful area, imagining that the hand is relaxed, heavy, and numb, and envisioning these sensations as replacing other, painful feelings in the affected area.
Relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga have been shown to reduce stress-related pain when they are practiced regularly. The gentle stretching of yoga is particularly good for strengthening muscles without putting additional strain on the body.
Acupuncture and Chronic Pain
Acupuncture is thought to decrease chronic pain by increasing the release of endorphins, chemicals that block pain. Many acu-points are near nerves. When stimulated, these nerves cause a dull ache or feeling of fullness in the muscle. The stimulated muscle sends a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), causing the release of endorphins that block the message of pain from being delivered to the brain.
Acupuncture may be useful as an accompanying treatment for many pain-related conditions, including headache, low back pain, menstrual cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis (especially of the knee), and myofascial pain. Acupuncture also may be an acceptable alternative to or may be included as part of a comprehensive pain management program.
Chiropractic Treatment and Massage
Chiropractic treatment is the most common nonsurgical treatment for back pain. Improvements of people undergoing chiropractic manipulations were noted in some trials. However, the treatment's effectiveness in treating chronic back and neck pain has not been supported by compelling evidence from the majority of clinical trials. Further studies are currently assessing the effectiveness of chiropractic care for pain management.
Massage is being increasingly used by people suffering from pain, mostly to manage chronic back and neck problems. Massage can reduce stress and relieve tension by enhancing blood flow. This treatment also can reduce the presence of substances that may generate and sustain pain. Available data suggest that massage therapy, like chiropractic manipulations, holds considerable promise for managing back pain. However, it is not possible to draw final conclusions regarding the effectiveness of massage to treat pain because of the shortcomings of available studies.