I’ve had two major surgeries (knee and breast cancer), two wisdom teeth extracted, and one broken rib (mountain biking), so I’ve been given my share of prescription opioids to help with pain management. I don’t like how I feel on opioids, so I always take one dose after surgery, then drop the remainder off at the police station for proper disposal. It wasn’t until I found out that my friend was a former addict that I learned about the severity of the opioid epidemic.
We’ll address the current opioid epidemic, prescription and OTC pain relievers, along with looking at ten all-natural alternatives to help alleviate chronic pain, including back pain.
A Brief History of Opioids and the Opioid Crisis
Opioids are a class of drugs which interact with the opioid receptors in the brain and replicate the pain reducing properties of opium. They can be legal prescription drugs such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, and morphine, or illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. (14) Fentanyl is a legal controlled drug (Schedule II drug), however, it is made illegally and has shown up in recreational drugs.
According to the United States Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, between 2012 and 2016, the number of opioid overdoses in the US increased by nearly 640 percent. More than two million Americans are dependent on opioids. In 2016, 236 opioid prescriptions were filled, and over 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. Even worse, people who abuse opioids may switch to heroin because it is less expensive than prescription drugs. (11, 15)
The crisis is so out of hand, that President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. In 2017, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit within the Department of Justice to prosecute individuals who commit opioid-related health care fraud. (16)
Case in point, in 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to a felony charge of misbranding and misrepresenting the risk of addiction from OxyContin. More then ten years later, the US Department of Justice released a report that found Purdue Pharma knew about and subsequently concealed the significant abuse of OxyContin since it was released in 1996. (12)
NSAIDs and Chronic Use
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are non-prescription pain killers. They work by blocking the chemicals that cause pain and inflammation. NSAIDs are sold over the counter in the following forms:
- Aspirin (Bayer, Excedrin, Bufferin)
- Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
- Naproxen sodium (Aleve). (13)
Not just for treating headaches, NSAIDs can be taken for:
- Aches from the common cold
- Gout pain
- Menstrual cramps
- Muscle aches
Even though NSAIDs are common, they are not necessarily safe. In addition to mild side-effects, chronic use of NSAIDs can cause severe or even life-threatening issues such as:
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Heart attacks
- High blood pressure
- Kidney damage
What You Need to Know About Chronic Pain
We’ve all had headaches and muscle aches. Some of us have had broken bones. Many of us suffer with chronic pain.
While acute pain happens when the nervous system alerts you to possible injury, chronic pain is more persistent. The nervous system keeps firing pain signals due to a past injury, damage, sprains, or conditions like cancer or arthritis. (1)
Over 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from chronic pain. It affects 100 million Americans, more than diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer combined. In the United States, treating pain costs Americans around half a trillion dollars annually. (1)
This kind of widespread pain comes at a huge cost – both financially and with our lives. As we learned in the section above, opioids are the cornerstone of treating the pain epidemic.
According to the National Institute of Health, the four most common types of pain are:
- Low back pain
- Severe headache or migraine pain
- Neck pain
- Facial pain. (17)
This study notes that more than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain.
What Causes Chronic Pain?
According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts at least 12 weeks. (1) Chronic pain can be caused by an injury, or from an underlying health condition. Some of these health conditions may include: (2)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – extreme tiredness often accompanied by pain.
- Endometriosis – a condition when the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus.
- Fibromyalgia – widespread pain and tenderness in muscles and soft tissue.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD or IBS) – chronic inflammation and pain in the digestive tract.
- Interstitial Cystitis – chronic bladder pain
- Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ) – painful clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw.
- Vulvodynia – chronic pain in the vulva.
10 Ways to Deal with Chronic Pain Naturally
You don’t have to rely on prescription or even OTC pain medication to help alleviate your chronic pain. There are numerous all-natural methods that you can turn to. Here are the top ten.
As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” While we may have differing viewpoints on keto vs. paleo vs. vegan, there is one fact that we can all agree on. Eliminating sugar and processed food and focusing instead on eating whole foods will do wonders for your health.
I used to have chronic migraines, but within days of eliminating gluten from my diet, the migraines disappeared. Forever. In addition to eliminating sugar and processed foods, there also may be some food allergies or sensitivities that are causing the underlying issues.
Curcumin, the yellow pigment found in turmeric, is a polyphenol with anti-inflammatory properties. There are numerous studies lauding the health benefits of curcumin, and easing pain is just one of many great benefits of curcumin. Higher doses of curcumin (400-500mg) are comparable to 2g of acetaminophen in potency. (7)
Nutritional experts recommend combining turmeric with black pepper, as the piperine alkaloid in black pepper enhances the absorption of curcumin by 2000%. It is ideal that your curcumin supplement has the added piperine to ensure it is more bioavailable and better absorbed. (19)
3) Cannabis (THC and CBD)
Medical marijuana in the forms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are becoming more popular as an alternative to treating and relieving pain. When THC is ingested or inhaled, it activates the brain’s cannabinoid receptors and reduces pain levels by producing an elevated state of mind (a high). CBD does not cause the same high, but it interacts with the same pain receptors for a similar pain-relieving effect. (10)
According to Dr. Mary Clifton, a leader in plant-based medicine, “up to 75% of patients have ongoing pain and disability after back surgery. In an Italian study published in the Journal of Pain Research in 2018, medical cannabis was studied in combination with spinal cord stimulators in 11 patients who were unresponsive to other therapies. Pain control was achieved in four cases in the first month of treatment, with overall pain scores decreasing from 8.18 to 4.72 on a ten-point scale, indicating marked improvement, with no reported adverse events. Study participants also reported improvement in the quality of sleep, mood and more enjoyment of life, with no reported severe adverse events.”
Always exercise caution when using marijuana-based products, as they do not have approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (10)
Boswellia Serrata is the gum resin extracted from a tree and is used in Ayurvedic medicine for its healing properties. Boswellia is commonly known as Frankincense, and contains anti-inflammatory enzymes which help to suppress pain. (8)
According to Dr. Eric Zielinski, Biblical Health Educator, “By regulating inflammation, frankincense oil is a powerful tool not only for acute illness but also for chronic and autoimmune disorders.”
Ginger has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for its anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen. Ginger may help to reduce joint pain, reduce inflammation, and increase circulation. (9)
In one study (9) of more than 200 patients, a specialized ginger extract, Eurovita Extract 77, improved osteoarthritis pain after standing and walking.
A word of caution, ginger can interfere with certain medications, including those taken for blood thinning. It should never be used if you have gallstones.
The best way to gain your omega-3 fatty acids is from your diet, such as wild-caught cold-water fish. Studies have shown that fish oil supplements may help to reduce pain in persons with inflammatory joint pain. (6)
7) Osteopathic and Chiropractic Adjustments
Both Osteopaths and Chiropractors both use adjustment techniques to treat pain.
According to Dr. Sean Woods, Chiropractor, and Founder of Panacea Nutritionals, “The basis of chiropractic philosophy states that the body is self-healing, and self-regulating. Neck pain, back pain, and joint stiffness are very common problems that enter a chiropractic office. Chiropractic adjustments balance the body’s structure, corrects subluxations, and eliminates impingements to the nervous system. What’s important to remember about chiropractic is that a healthy spine means a healthy body.”
Osteopathic adjustments can range from myofascial release to adjustments similar to chiropractic manipulation. These treatments are used to help with myofascial pain, sprain, joint pain, and musculoskeletal imbalances. One study showed on a treatment of 144 women with lower back pain in their third trimester of pregnancy, showed that the women in this group experienced less back pain. (5)
8) Myofascial Release
According to Phaedra Antioco, Occupational Therapist, Pain and Trauma Coach and expert-level John Barnes Myofascial Release Approach(R) therapist, stress, trauma and past injuries can become trapped in your fascial system. Phaedra states that a combined approach including Somatic Experiencing and myofascial release will help to relieve pain. “Sustained pressure is applied to the skin and over time the tissue melts in the therapist’s hands. It involves manipulating the fascial connective tissue, using mostly mild and gentle stretching. The key to healing is the use of sustained pressure over long periods of time and for the patient to gain awareness of the pain. Once a person connects with the injury or painful area, release happens.”
Acupuncture is an ancient form of TCM used to help alleviate pain. It’s now main-stream in Western countries to help with low back pain, neck pain, knee pain, headaches, Fibromyalgia, and more. Fine needles are placed in specific acupoints in the body to release and redirect the body’s natural energy, known as chi or qi, which result in the release of endorphins, your body’s natural pain-killing chemicals. After the needles are placed, you rest for approximately 30 minutes. (18)
If you choose acupuncture therapy, always seek out a licensed and experienced acupuncturist, and one who you are comfortable working with.
10) Pet Therapy
We all know that our four-legged furry friends make us feel good. But did you know that spending time with them may help to reduce pain?
One study (3) examined the outcome of adding a therapy dog to the waiting area of Fibromyalgia patients and found that these patients experienced significantly reduced pain and anxiety. Another study (4) examined a similar situation with 295 waiting room visits with therapy dogs and again found significant improvements in both pain and mood.
There is a time and a place for prescription drugs to help with pain management. It’s always advised to discuss with your doctor your pain treatment protocol, whether it’s using prescription drugs, OTC medicine, or alternative therapies.
There are many different strategies and approaches to manage pain. Often, a combination of these alternative treatments will work better than a singular approach. Find a practitioner who will listen to and work with you to help you find the course of treatment that is best for you.
Listen to your body, pay attention to queues as to what makes your pain worse or better, and take care of yourself. Most importantly, don’t give up, and keep searching for answers.
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