If you're one of the millions of women who experiences chronic pain, you know that it can interfere with your work, exercise, relationships, sleep — even your self-esteem and happiness as you struggle with your ability to do even basic things like work out, sleep, and travel. Whether a backache, shoulder or knee pain, regular headaches, gut pain from IBS or IBS, or even monthly pain from PMS, chronic pain is also major cause of depression and anxiety. It's miserable.
As a physician, my goal is to help you relieve your suffering. Part of this means helping you to prevent the very real damage that can result from the regular use of conventional medicines. I also want to help you get to the root causes of your symptoms, not just throw medical band-aids at problems, as so many doctors are trained to do because they lack time to figure out what's really going on, and were never taught about effective alternatives.
Conventional Pain Medications: More Harm than Good?
While pharmaceuticals are sometimes the best temporary option for pain relief, unfortunately, when taken regularly, most common pain medications, can wreak havoc in your body, leading to more serious chronic medical problems down the road – and many work far less well than we're led to believe. Let's have a look at the most common ones.
The Problems with NSAIDs
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, are frequently given to children for fever and common aches and pains, and are taken regularly – even daily – by adults for chronic pain. Taken for even as little as 5 days in a row, these medications can cause Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS), gastritis, and even severe stomach ulcers requiring surgery. Taken for just 10 days in a row, and possibly when taken regularly, NSAIDs can impair fertility!
What you were probably never told by your doctor is that these pain medications can actually make chronic pain worse! Medication Overuse Headache (MOH) is a known medical condition, for example, in which headaches become more frequent and severe due to regular use of medications for headache. Over-the-counter drugs such as Tylenol can cause MOH.
Narcotics use, which is on the rise in epidemic proportions, is responsible for a range of medical problems ranging from severe (and gut-damaging) constipation to death. Every day in the United States at least 105 people die from accidental overdoses of properly prescribed pain medications. And for at least 10% of people taking them, narcotics make pain substantially worse! Most think the pain is getting worse because they aren’t taking enough of the medication, so they take more. This can create a dangerous setup for overdose.
Look for Hidden Causes of Chronic Pain
I treat many women with chronic diseases where pain is part of their symptoms. Autoimmune conditions affecting the joints, gut problems causing digestive pain, fibromyalgia, pelvic and menstrual pain, and chronic headaches and migraines are just a few examples. Here are the steps that I use to help my patients get relief:
Get to the root cause of your inflammation using functional medicine. Inflammation doesn't just happen out of nowhere; it is a result of disruption in your immune response. Common root causes that lead to chronic pain or make it worse include:
- Poor – or not enough – sleep
- Structural problems from past injury or posture
- Food intolerances, gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, or leaky gut syndrome
- Low vitamin D and essential fatty acids
- Autoimmune conditions including Hashimoto's, Rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and others.
- Hormonal imbalances, inflammation, other roots of period pain, endometriosis, or hormonal migraines
- Root causes of chronic headaches or migraines
- History of trauma – memories can become “stored” as memory in the body, leading to pain and inflammation.
- Depression can cause pain, and being in pain is depressing
I address each of the above root causes systematically, asking specific questions to help me identify whether any are occurring, and address any underlying pain triggers accordingly. I also incorporate the following six steps, as relevant.
Six Steps to Relieve Pain, Naturally
Improve your sleep
Making better sleep a priority is key to getting a handle on pain. Poor sleep and inadequate amounts of sleep increase your perception of pain – so you actually feel more pain than when you're rested – and simultaneously reduces your ability to cope with pain, Here is an article on improving your sleep. If pain is what's keeping you up at night, please take a look at the supplements above specifically for helping with pain at night.
Decrease stress with even just 1 daily mindfulness practice
Examples include meditation, visualization, journaling, and one of my favorites, my De-Stress Bath. It's simple. Add the following to bathwater as hot as you can comfortably tolerate:
- 2 cups of Epsom salts
- 5 drops of lavender essential oil and 5 drops of rose essential oil
Soak for about 20 minutes before bed each night, or at least a couple of nights each week to relieve stress and musculoskeletal pain, and improve your body’s detoxification abilities. Lavender relaxes the nerves and muscles, while rose calms the spirit and eases the heart.
Get bodywork for structural issues
Pain may be due to old physical injuries or emotional traumas that have caused you to hold pain and tension in your body. I have found craniosacral and myofascial work to be powerfully effective for helping to realign the framework of the body to relieve “stuck” tension and inflammation. Massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, and physical therapy can also be helpful, as can increasing your mobility and flexibility with yoga and movement.
Try an Elimination Diet
I often start with a 6-12 week elimination diet to rule out dietary contributors to inflammation. You can learn how to do this here.
Reconsider Your Pain Medications
As I mentioned earlier, taking pain medications, including NSAIDs, can actually lead to worsened and more chronic pain. So talk with your doctor about stopping the regular use of pain medications that may actually be doing more harm than good — and may even be making your pain worse! Try lowering you pain medication dose, and spacing the doses out further, using pain medication only when absolutely necessary, and use alternatives (see below) whenever you can to keep pain under control while you're getting to the root causes.
Use Nutrients and Herbs to Relieve Pain & Inflammation
While you're getting to the root causes of your pain, you'll want herbs and supplements to help you deal with lingering pain symptoms. The ones I discuss below can be used in combination. To make it easy, look for tproducts on the market that do this for you, or purchase herbs and supplements and make your own daily combination, seeing what works best for you. Vitamin D should be checked, and I recommend at least 2000 units of Vitamin D3 daily, as well as a daily fish oil supplement if you have chronic pain.
These herbs and supplements not only directly relieve pain, they also quell the inflammation at its root, so using them daily can be healing and prevent recurrence:
- Bromelain: an enzyme from pineapple, this be taken daily to reduce chronic inflammation and also helps with digestive symptoms. A common dose is 200-320 mg twice daily.
- Ginger: Shown to be as effective as NSAIDs for relieving pain and inflammation, the dose is 500-1000mg, 1-2 times daily.
- Curcumin: Relieves inflammation, the daily dose is 1200-2400 mg
- Boswellia: From osteoarthritis to inflammatory bowel disease, this herb's ability to reduce inflammation and pain is an important addition to supplements. A typical dose is 350 mg/day three times/day.
- Devil’s claw: Shown to be better than conventional medications for low back pain, you want to use a product that provides 50-100 mg harpagoside, the active chemical in the herb, daily
- Sam-E: specifically beneficial for osteoarthritis knee pain, the dose is 200-400 mg three times daily.
- Capsaicin from hot peppers, and essential oils of wintergreen, peppermint, and lavender – all used topically – alleviate the discomforts of painful joints and headaches. They usually need to be applied at least 3 times/day to the affected area to be maximally effective.
The following herbs are purely to relieve pain symptoms. These herbs are strong non-addictive analgesics and muscle relaxants that can be used acutely as needed. They are also especially good for acute pain as with symptom flares or with your period, and also for nighttime pain.
- Jamaican dogwood
- Cramp bark
Ginger, cramp bark, and fish oil, as well as the topical applications, may all be used safely during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Getting to the root causes of health problems generally not only improves your symptoms, but can give you a whole new lease on your total health! Keep in mind, even if your pain is due to a condition that can’t be completely fixed (for example: you have an old injury that causes chronic discomfort), addressing all of the above factors can improve your pain tolerance, and ignoring these areas can make your pain worse!
I wish you ease, freedom from pain, and hope that this article can help you to feel like yourself again!