By Dr. Mercola
A new federal report revealed that the majority of U.S. adults (more than 54 percent) had some type of musculoskeletal pain disorder such as back, joint or neck pain in 2012 (the latest year for which statistics are available).1
Its prevalence is indicative of the significant price Americans pay for pain — it's a leading cause of disability and major contributor to health care expenses and disability compensation.
Also revealing, people suffering from pain were significantly more likely to have used a complementary health approach compared to people without pain — nearly 42 percent versus 24 percent, respectively.
The reason wasn't addressed by the study, but time and again, conventional medicine fails to relieve many people's pain.
Congressional testimony from the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians (ASIPP) stated that Americans consume 80 percent of the pain pills in the world,2 and in a survey of more than 2,000 pain patients in the U.S., most said they were taking a dangerously addictive opioid pain medication.3
Research suggests, however, that these drugs work for only about three months, after which changes in your brain may lead to increased feelings of pain along with added emotional upset, including feelings of hopelessness and desperation.4
Many pain sufferers have tried virtually every treatment that conventional medicine has to offer — medications, injections, surgery and more — only to find that their pain hasn't gotten better and they may be struggling with treatment-induced side effects as well (one of the worst of which is opioid addiction).
At that point (and for many far sooner), it's only natural that you would begin to seek other options, which brings many people to holistic, complementary or "alternative" health care options for relief.
Science-Backed Natural Pain Relief Options
A recent study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings evaluated several complementary approaches for pain relief.5 The options that follow have been scientifically proven to help with relief, according to the report.
One of the most common uses for acupuncture is in treating chronic pain. One analysis of the most robust studies available concluded that acupuncture has a clear effect in reducing chronic pain, more so than standard pain treatment.6
Study participants receiving acupuncture reported an average 50 percent reduction in pain, compared to a 28 percent pain reduction for standard pain treatment without acupuncture. It's likely that acupuncture works via a variety of mechanisms.
In 2010, for instance, it was found that acupuncture activates pain-suppressing receptors and increases the concentration of the neurotransmitter adenosine in local tissues7 (adenosine slows down your brain's activity and induces sleepiness).
A systematic review and meta-analysis, published in the journal Pain Medicine, included 60 high-quality and seven low-quality studies that looked into the use of massage for various types of pain, including muscle and bone pain, headaches, deep internal pain, fibromyalgia pain and spinal cord pain.8
The review revealed that massage therapy relieves pain better than getting no treatment at all.
Breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditation and other relaxation techniques may provide relief, especially from pain from tension headaches and migraines.
Research by an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson, found that people who practice relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation long-term have more disease-fighting genes switched "on" and active, including genes that protect against pain and rheumatoid arthritis.9
Among people who had experienced back pain, those who exercised had a 25 percent to 40 percent lower risk of having another episode within a year than those who did no exercise.10
Strength exercises, aerobics, flexibility training and stretching were all beneficial in lowering the risk of back pain.
Motor control exercises (MCE), which help to improve coordination of muscles that support your spine,11 may also help. One systematic review found MCE led to reductions in pain and disability and improvements in perceived quality of life compared with minimal intervention.12
Yoga, which is particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscles, has also been proven to be beneficial if you suffer from back pain.
People suffering from low back pain who took one yoga class a week had greater improvements in function than those receiving medicine or physical therapy.13 The Yoga Journal has an online page demonstrating specific poses that may be helpful.14
There are cannabinoid receptors in your brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system and more. Both the therapeutic and psychoactive properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates a cannabinoid receptor.
Research is still ongoing on just how extensive their impact is on our health, but to date it's known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many body processes, including metabolic regulation, cravings, pain, anxiety, bone growth and immune function.15
Some of the strongest research to date is focused on marijuana for pain relief. In one study, just three puffs of marijuana a day for five days helped those with chronic nerve pain to relieve pain and sleep better.16
Also revealing, in states where medical marijuana is legal, overdose deaths from opioids like morphine, oxycodone and heroin decreased by an average of 20 percent after one year, 25 percent after two years and 33 percent by years five and six.17
Turmeric for Pain Relief
Turmeric was once most known for being a flavorful and colorful addition to curry, but in the scientific world, turmeric has earned a reputation for being a multi-faceted healer. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has notable anti-inflammatory properties.
It can inhibit both the activity and the synthesis of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX2) and 5-lipooxygenase (5-LOX), as well as other enzymes that have been implicated in inflammation.
A 2006 study found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids (curcumin is the most investigated curcuminoid) blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the launch of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.18
Turmeric has been found to significantly improve post-operative pain and fatigue,19 and in a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added only 200 milligrams (mg) of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.
Time magazine even published the story of one doctor who marveled at one of his older hip patient's lack of pain and remarkably swift recovery from surgery. The patient took turmeric regularly, and the results so impressed the physician that he began taking the supplement himself.20
Essential Oils for Pain Relief
Essential oils are concentrated, aromatic plant extracts that have been used for thousands of years for emotional, cosmetic, medical and even spiritual purposes. One of their most popular uses is also for relief of chronic and acute pain.
There are a number of ways to use essential oils, including via aromatherapy. Lavender aromatherapy, for instance, has been shown to lessen pain following needle insertion21 while green apple scent significantly relieves migraine pain. Other essential oils noted for pain relief, including relief from joint pain, include:22
Indian frankincense or boswellin has even been found to significantly reduce inflammation in animal studies. It is actually one of my personal favorites, as I have seen it work well as a natural painkiller for many of my former rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. Other essential oils that may be particularly beneficial for relieving RA pain and inflammation include:23
For relief of chronic muscular pain or joint aches, try mixing 15 to 60 drops of your chosen essential oil with 1 ounce of carrier oil, then massaging it into the painful area.
You can also mix three drops of thyme oil with 2 teaspoons of sesame oil to use as massage oil and apply on your abdominal area to relieve pain. This may also be used as a massage oil to treat other types of pain, including insect and animal bites and stings. You can also use essential oils in the bathtub to relieve pain. Add two to 12 drops (depending on essential oil) into a teaspoon of honey, whole milk, vegetable oil or other dispersing agent then add to the bath once you are in the tub.
Homeopathy Also Found to Be Effective for Low Back Pain
Homeopathic solutions contain miniscule doses of plants, minerals, animal products or other compounds that cause symptoms similar to what you are already experiencing. The remedies have been diluted many times over, and the idea is that the substance will stimulate your body's own healing powers.
One study of 129 people with chronic low back pain found traditional homeopathic treatment was effective for treating low back pain, leading to improvements in health-related quality of life and decreases in the use of conventional treatment and health care services.
The number of patients using drugs to treat their back pain was cut in half after homeopathic treatments.24 It's best to work with an experienced homeopath to guide you in treatment for pain relief, however some common homeopathic remedies for back pain include:25
Aesculus, for dull pain with muscle weakness
Arnica Montana, for pain as a result of trauma
Gnaphalium, for sciatica that alternates with numbness
Lycopodium, for burning pain, especially with gas or bloating
Colocynthis, for weakness and cramping in the small of the back
Rhus toxicodendron, for stiffness and pain in the small of the back
Finding the Right Balance Between Relief and Healing
If you're in severe pain or struggling with chronic pain, it can quickly sideline your life. You'll need relief fast in order to function, which is why I recommend seeking the help of a pain specialist who is familiar with alternative treatments.
A knowledgeable practitioner can help you to both relieve pain in the short term while also facilitating healing by identifying the underlying causes of your pain. It's important to understand that medications are not the only option for pain relief, nor are they frequently the best such option.
When used cautiously and correctly, prescription pain relievers do have their place in medicine, but they became dangerous when used long term. For many people, lasting relief comes not from one modality but several, and it often includes making dietary changes as well.
It may take a process of trial and error for you to find what combination works for you — but please stay hopeful. You can break free from chronic pain and, ultimately, many people find they don't need drugs to do it.