When pain happens, the first reaction is often a script for medication. Sometimes this can be very necessary too — after all, people have daily lives to get on with!
But while medication can bring temporary relief, what about in the longer term? If a person’s pain is ongoing, what is known about non-drug treatments and how they work for chronic pain?
Pain and its causes and effects
Pain can occur in just about any area of the body, and may be dull or sharp, acute or chronic. Causes may include illnesses, surgery, tissue damage or injuries.
Pain can lead to stress, distress, anxiety and ongoing fatigue, as well as increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Drug treatments for pain
The types of drugs used to treat pain include paracetamol, aspirin, anti-inflammatories, anaesthesia, and opioids such as morphine. Drug treatments work by altering brain chemistry and the pain messages that the brain receives. However, medications can have side-effects, and sometimes may even be addictive. In addition, if a pain-sufferer becomes sedated from high-dose medications they might struggle to perform in their day-to-day lives.
Drug treatments for pain can also lose their effectiveness over time once the body becomes accustomed to them and develops a kind of resistance. This means that in cases of chronic pain, it may be necessary to balance medications with other treatments, to avoid an over-dependence on drugs.
Non-drug treatments for pain
- Heat treatment reduces pain through blood vessel dilation.
- Cold treatment works by narrowing the blood vessels, reducing inflammation, and numbing the pain.
- TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) involves applying electrical stimulation to the skin to bring about a pain-relief response from the body.
- Massage promotes mental and muscle relaxation and aids in recovery. It can be used to treat a range of conditions, including soft-tissue injuries and chronic back pain.
- Mindfulness meditation promotes relaxation and focus, helping to reduce both emotional and physical pain.
- Psychological and behavioural therapies can assist pain sufferers change the way they think about their pain.
- Exercise can be used to treat a range of conditions as well as improve mood, wellbeing and fitness, and prevent muscle spasms. The best exercises for an individual pain-sufferer will depend on the situation. Examples include stretching, aerobics, Pilates, yoga, strength training and water exercises.
The science on exercise
A review in the British Journal of Pharmacology asserts that exercise can act as a psychoactive drug through its effect on brain function. One of the main effects is the production of endorphins (feel good hormones) which are known to alter pain perception, improve mood, promote quality sleep, and reduce the consequences of stress exposure.
According to a Harvard Health report, exercise is the secret to the relief of joint pain acquired from old injuries, osteoarthritis, and repetitive strain. The report shows that limiting movement due to pain can weaken muscles and make the problem worse, and that regular exercise can be used to tame physical pain.
So what does this mean?
In many cases, a combination of treatments is what will work best for pain sufferers. These may include physical therapies, medications, exercise and psychological therapy. It’s important that a professional is consulted to design a program that is tailored for the individual case.