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Treating Acute and Chronic Pain

What in tarnation IS THIS THING? Whatever it is, it's  NOT REPRESENTATIVE of acupuncture.
What in tarnation IS THIS THING? Whatever it is, it’s NOT REPRESENTATIVE of acupuncture.

Pain sucks, no doubt about it. Whether it’s acute or chronic, it can cloud your thinking, mess with your sleep, disrupt your ability to get around, and affect your relationships. In the community acupuncture clinic, pain is one of the most common things we treat.

Before going into the details about how to best treat pain, I do want to take a moment to share one essential piece of advice: Try to be compassionate toward others who are experiencing pain, especially those who deal with the chronic kind. People experience and handle pain differently. Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid assessing the “validity” of another person’s pain, since that would be insensitive and annoying.

Try not to do that.

Also, understand that people in pain are not always confined to their beds. You may see them out and about, trying to live their lives despite their pain. People who experience chronic pain are often grouchy, anxious, and/or depressed.  Before judging them, take a moment to consider how you might feel if pain greeted you every morning upon waking. If you think you’d be consistently chipper and glass-half-full, well, you’re probably a Cylon.

So…what is the best way to treat pain?

Well, if you haven’t tried acupuncture yet, here’s my shameless promotion: GET POKED! Acupuncture should be a relaxing, rejuvenating, pain-reducing experience. And in case you’re wondering, an acupuncture treatment will not leave you looking like Pinhead from Hellraiser. And yes, I have been asked that.

Herbal medicine can also be helpful in managing pain. More on that in a bit.

Treating Pain With Conventional Medicine

Ideally, we’d always treat pain the same way: identify and remove the cause. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Sometimes, we don’t know the cause of pain. Sometimes we know the cause but there’s little we can do about it. And sometimes, whether or not we know the cause, symptomatic pain relief is a priority (such as in the case of traumatic injuries, acute migraine, cancer-related pain, and surgical procedures).

Analgesic medications are usually the first line of treatment for pain; thankfully, many of them work quickly and well. An analgesic drug relieves pain and, very-generally-speaking, can be divided into either opioid or non-opioids. No matter the type of pain medication you use, they all have potential for side effects, especially when used over time. Since we’ve already established that pain sucks, the fact that common pain meds can come with nasty side effects is a double suck.

Adverse Drug Reactions

White pills on black
I, for one, was thankful for the stronger class of pain meds after my caesarian section. I refused at first. About 6 hours later, I changed my mind.

All pain medications come with a list of potential adverse drug reactions (ADRs). An adverse drug reaction is an injury caused by taking a medications. Adverse drug reactions are one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in health care.

Many patients want to know if there is anything they can take to treat their pain more naturally. In most cases, the answer is yes. That being said, natural does not necessarily imply safe; it’s best to consult with your PCP before adding anything into your regimen, especially if you have any chronic conditions or are taken any other medications.

With that necessary (but generic) advice given, the reality is that some conventional medical practitioners will know very little about herbs and supplements for treating pain. If that’s the case, it’s up to you (and your CAM practitioner, if you’re working with one) to make informed decisions if you decide to try an herb or supplement for pain.

Herb-drug interactions do exist. In most cases, some simple guidelines can help you avoid that. More on that here. And here.

All of that out of the way, let’s look at some other options for treating pain.

Start from the Beginning: Your Daily Fuel

What we eat can affect how we feel. That’s a no brainer. Put simply, your diet can contribute to inflammation, and inflammation is always at the root of pain. As much as possible, relax when you eat, chew your food, and take a moment to embrace the inherent pleasure of flavor. Try to incorporate community around the table; in other words, if possible, share, and enjoy the company of those with whom you decide to break bread. Being mindful of the experience of eating, rather than obsessing about what to eat, is a manageable starting point for most.

For patients who want to know more about specific dietary advice – simply put, you want to decrease food choices that contribute to inflammation. Below are some of my favorite resources, if you’re interested in reading more. Experimentation is key to understanding what works for your body. Detail of a man shopping in a supermarket

I do not think there is a single “diet” that is best for everyone. My intention here is not to preach; I would, however, like to provide some good resources for you to peruse in order to make a decision about what works for you, and seems sustainable. Remember, the blue zone areas (five regions in various parts of the world identified as having the highest concentrations of centenarians) have quite different diets from one another. (Read this short but fascinating piece on those populations who specialize in longevity here).

Let’s start with some simple guidelines: 27 Health and Nutrition Tips that Are Actually Evidence-Based

Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammation diet: Free, full of info, including a food pyramid you can print and hang on your fridge. Includes animal products. Anecdotally-speaking, seems to have worked well for many of my patients in regards to shedding pounds, feeling energized, and having less pain.

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Recipe Book: One of my favorite books, easy-to-read, concise information and devoid of self-aggrandizement or markety gimmicky crap. Tried and true recipes. I have many patients who report that reading this book helped immensely with their health problems, and helped them understand what can help fight inflammation.

Forks Over Knives: A whole-food, plant-based diet heavily influenced by The China Study. In my opinion, good for some constitutions, not good for others (to be clear, I think whole-food, plant-based food is great for everyone, but not always at the expense of all animal foods, especially if you tend to be “blood deficient” or “yin deficient” according to TCM). Patients with excess constitutions (if they can muster the discipline and support), can thrive on this diet. A revolutionary way of looking at food for many.

Low-Carbohydrate Diets: So, is it a dietary fad, or not? A body of favorable research does seem to be growing for the low-carbohydate diet. But again – this diet it most likely good for some, not great for others (one issue that I’ve come across when talking to my patients is that some felt like they did well on this diet but couldn’t sustain it).

So, yeah….choosing what to put in your mouth can be complicated. If you find this overwhelming, start with these simple rules.

Now let’s take a look at herbs that can reduce inflammation.