My colleague Carol Bowman, M.D., staff physician and director of The Pain Recovery Program at Father Martin’s Ashley, discusses the role of holistic medicine when treating patients suffering from chronic pain:
The causes of chronic pain syndrome are complex. They typically include a history of substance abuse, trauma, anxiety or depression, as well as injury, surgery or other pain-inducing physical issues. We know from functional MRI imaging that the biggest predictor of who will develop chronic pain has to do with the activity level of the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is the site of emotion.
It’s important to understand the difference between pain, which is a signal, and suffering, which is a cognitive structure related to how one feels about having pain. In other words, the more emotionally charged and upset someone is about their pain, the worse the pain becomes.
This creates a complex situation where both the mind and body must be treated. However, unilateral treatments that address only the physical or psychological and do not treat the whole person are not as effective as a treatment solution that is integrated. For example, distressed thoughts and emotions about having pain can be addressed with meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.
In addition, chronic pain has more to do with how much underlying inflammation there is in the body than the exact physical disturbance. The reason conventional pain management approaches fall short is because the treatment plans consist of pharmaceuticals and procedures, which are not enough. Chronic pain syndrome requires a holistic approach. I’ve seen great success with treatment that involves physical therapy and functional restoration, detoxification from narcotics, acupuncture, massage, an anti-inflammatory diet, and other holistic approaches that decrease inflammation and treat the whole person.
In short, treating the symptom of pain will not get to the root cause of chronic pain syndrome. All of the factors that resulted in the complex situation must be addressed before real recovery and restoration can be achieved. Only then will the person be able to lead a fulfilling life.