More than 100 million U.S. adults today suffer from chronic pain conditions, and the annual economic cost of this long-term pain, including both treatments and lost productivity, is estimated at a whopping $600 billion a year.
Chronic pain is more common among women than men, and covers a wide range of aches and symptoms. Experts expect the number of baby boomers and seniors living with long-term discomfort to spike sharply, in part because boomers are aging, and because many painful conditions, such as arthritis, become much more common with advancing age.
“The total number of people suffering from chronic pain in the U.S. surpasses that of all people affected by heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined,” according to the American Chronic Pain Association.
Despite the scope of the problem, very little is spent on research to find superior and affordable ways to manage chronic pain from ongoing inflammation. “Chronic pain has become a disease in its own right for many patients,” says orthopedic surgeon C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., MD, chief of sports medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, and author of “The New Science of Overcoming Arthritis.”
Battling Back from Chronic Pain and Inflammation
Janet Komanchuk, a retired schoolteacher in Valrico, Florida, suffered with debilitating fibromyalgia so intensely that, at age 52, she considered spending the rest of her life in a nursing home.
Fibromyalgia is a complex, chronic condition of widespread muscular pain and fatigue that often includes sleep disturbances, impaired memory and concentration, depression, and other symptoms.
“I tried taking medical leave, morphine patches, codeine and other pharmaceuticals, and nothing brought me an iota of relief,” she says. “I actually took an early retirement and tried different mind-body approaches in combination with medical treatments.” Since she began attacking the problem, Komanchuk has enjoyed 13 years of living pain-free (and prescription-free) after trying alternative healing therapies that worked for her, including talk therapy and regular pressure-point massages.
If you’re one of the truly unlucky ones for whom nothing seems to ease the pain associated with swelling and joint inflammation, grill your doctors and other specialists for additional treatment options, and ask yourself these vital questions:
Have I tried everything? Komanchuk had been to orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, rheumatologists and psychologists, and had tried MRIs and more for her unrelenting pain. Alternative treatments like acupuncture and professional therapy helped her realize that layers of stress throughout her lifestyle were a primary driver of her discomfort.
Am I overlooking dietary triggers? The medical community continues to learn more about the benefits of healthy eating and specific diets for people with inflammatory conditions, such as a gluten-free diet for people who suffer from gastrointestinal pain. “It can take years to realize you may have a serious food allergy or an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis,” says Vangsness. “Eliminating wheat, sugar and many processed foods helped me reduce total-body pain,” agrees Komanchuk.
Should I find a new specialist? Experts today realize that a patient’s innermost thoughts and emotions can influence the perception of pain, making it worse or less intense. Try to keep an open mind for pain solutions. “What works for one person with chronic pain might not work for their neighbor with similar aches,” says Vangsness.
- Medication is usually the first line of defense for those suffering long-term pain. A wide variety of pain relievers is available; some are over-the-counter while others require a prescription. They range from opioid painkillers to anti-seizure medications in certain circumstances.
- Relief through alternative therapies, talk therapy and mind-body techniques (alone, if possible) can help you avoid pitfalls, including drug side effects, and the potential for addiction and abuse; even the strongest of individuals can find it hard not to use pain medication for relaxation and feeling good, long after the pain is gone.
- Massage is a therapy that has been around for thousands of years and involves manually manipulating the skeletal muscles to relieve inflammation and encourage relaxation. A number of techniques can be used based upon the goal of the session, and some practices are more intense than others. A massage should only be performed by a licensed therapist, depending upon the unique needs of the patient.
- Alternative therapies may help some with particular pain conditions, like osteoarthritis, but not others. In your quest for pain relief, experiment with acupuncture, pressure-point massage, yoga, meditation and tai chi in tandem or alone, suggests the American Chronic Pain Association.
For Family Caregivers
- When it comes to chronic pain, there is no “one size fits all,” so keep experimenting until something works for you or a loved one. Many of these techniques can be combined and doubled up, such as combining medication and acupuncture right along with talk therapy.
- Ideally, everyone in your household should be living a healthier lifestyle to increase the efficacy of potential remedies and decrease inflammation from chronic pain, including getting enough rest and eating a diet enriched for your needs and/or taking vitamins and supplements. This combination of a healthier lifestyle plus an arsenal of pain-relief techniques may help you live better with long-term pain.