Overcoming Pain

Why people experience chronic pain, and the power they have to de-intensify it

Whence the Compliments for Complementary Medicine?

The psychology of looking beyond science-based medicine for pain relief.

Unfortunately, the management of chronic pain does not receive the attention it should—both by the sufferers of chronic pain and their physicians. According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, over 50% of individuals with chronic pain are of the opinion that they have little or no control over that pain. The American Cancer Society provides even more disturbing data: it is not unusual for cancer patients to experience pain that is untreated, undertreated, or improperly treated.

In the context of these realities, it is no wonder that many a chronic pain patient will seek out alternatives to the doctor’s office.

Indeed, chronic pain is the number one reason why patients seek Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies: A 2004 survey taken by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that back pain, neck pain, joint pain and arthritis were the most common pain-related conditions propelling people toward CAM. CAM patients and practitioners appreciate the potential of CAM therapies to:

• Reduce chronic pain.

• Reduce the need for medications.

• Improve concomitant depression.

• Bestow a sense of well-being.

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• Reduce stress.

• Improve the performance of daily activities.

• Provide a sense of control over the chronic pain patient’s life.

Interestingly, pediatricians are more likely than other medical specialists to refer their patients for CAM therapy for chronic pain, such as that experienced with headaches, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. A survey of children in a pain clinic found that over 60% of respondents expressed an interest in CAM therapies. They were particularly interested in biofeedback, hypnosis and yoga—therapies that tend to relax and give the participant a sense of control over body and emotions. The longer the duration of the pain experienced by a given patient, the greater the desire to try CAM therapies.

A 2006 article in the journal “Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine” concludes that understanding the approach of various CAM therapies vis-à-vis pain, and any biologic foundations upon which these approaches are based, may actually help in furthering the science of chronic pain. For example, Traditional Chinese Medicine deals with correcting perceived physical imbalances, understanding that it is a long-term approach that will best treat long-terms conditions such as chronic pain; implicit in this philosophy is the importance of life-style changes and mindfulness.

Managing physical and psychological tensions that can arise from chronic pain is key to managing chronic pain, and in fact may be more important than therapies that have a direct effect on pain. CAM therapies such as yoga, expressive writing, hypnosis, massage and acupuncture have the potential to benefit patients whose tensions only add to the pain.

Mark Borigini, M.D., is a board-certified rheumatologist who has devoted his career to treating illnesses that cause chronic pain and disability.

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