Pain is a symptom of living, and no amount of prevention can guarantee a pain-free existence.
But what’s painful to you isn’t necessarily painful to the next guy. And based on our physiology, genetics, diet and many other factors, pain might be common to some of us, and rare to others.
For our purposes, let’s consider the tolerance threshold of the average adult. Since pain is relative, subjective, and an entirely individual experience, it’s hard to compare one person’s pain to another person’s pain. With that being said, let’s jump into what creates the feeling of pain in our bodies before we talk about how to deal with it.
So what is pain? We all know what it feels like, and usually we know its origin. In basic terms, pain is a signal to your brain that your body is under assault from a negative stimulus. When you drop a cast iron pan on your bare foot because your were still a bit groggy during Sunday morning breakfast, your brain receives that pain signal and instantly takes action to prevent the same incident from happening again.
Acute Versus Chronic Pain
We all know that pain can take many forms. Sometimes it’s a soreness from a tough workout. Sometimes it’s a stinging papercut. Sometimes it’s a dull pounding headache. For our purposes, we’ll break down pain into two main categories: acute pain and chronic pain.
Acute pain is the sensation you feel immediately after being hurt. From an evolutionary perspective, pain has kept many a Neanderthal alive by creating a negative association with touching fire or hugging a cactus. It’s how we’re able to learn that the dangerous thing we just did is actually dangerous.
But acute pain can also be a surprise. If you’ve ever leaned over to pick something up, tweaked a major muscle in your back, and for weeks after hobbled around like Quasimodo in Notre Dame, you know this is true. This is the type of acute pain that can easily turn into chronic pain if improperly treated.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts for 3 to 6 months, or pain that has still not improved long after the normal amount of time it should take to heal. People who experience fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, and other painful conditions that last long-term. Sometimes chronic pain has a clear cause. Many times, pain becomes chronic when an acute injury heals improperly. Other times, pain doesn’t recede because we focus on treating the feelings of pain instead of the underlying cause.
Treating the Symptom, Not the Cause
Neurological disorders notwithstanding, the pain we feel in our bodies always has an origin. It could be from absolutely anything: inflammation and swelling in our joints, muscles, and fascia; a slipped disc or fractured vertebrae; or even a common stubbed toe. Pain moves from acute to chronic when we fail to address the underlying cause - and that could mean difficult rehabilitation, physical therapy, and yes, surgery. Unfortunately, the root cause of our pain is sometimes ignored, and as a result, medical professionals attempt to treat the feelings of pain.
To understand this, we need look no further than our own homegrown opioid crisis. These days, stories of prescribed painkillers are near-nightly features on the evening news. Many powerful medications that are designed to reduce pain by interrupting pain signals in the nervous system also beget addiction. Why? Because the primary side effect is an intense feeling of euphoria. People from all demographics in every state can become addicted to fentanyl, oxycodone, or morphine, collectively known as opioids.
Unfortunately, painkillers like these don’t actually treat the underlying causes of pain - they simply mask its existence. Thankfully, there are many medication-free ways to deal with our pain, and many of them have been used by cultures around the world for centuries.
Alternative Methods to Treat the Causes of Pain
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, chronic pain is more commonly being treated in ways not traditionally associated with Western medicine. From NIH.gov: “A growing body of evidence suggests that some complementary approaches, such as acupuncture, hypnosis, massage, mindfulness meditation, spinal manipulation, tai chi, and yoga, may help to manage some painful conditions.”
Generally, these approaches won’t be helpful to you to help reduce acute pain. Still, you should consider practicing these treatment methods even when you don’t feel pain to help prevent unnecessary chronic pain from affecting your quality of life. Additionally, these alternative treatments have been proven effective in treating general muscle pain, lower back pain, and even arthritis.
An appointment with a physical therapist who is experienced in a variety of treatment methods can help you determine which of these alternative strategies might help with your specific condition. Obviously, if you have trypanophobia, you will steer clear of acupuncture at all costs and might be more interested in the benefits of tai chi or yoga.
When yoga, acupuncture, or trigger point therapy aren’t enough to reduce chronic pain on their own, consider some changes to your diet. There are many common herbs and spices that you may already have in your home that are shown to reduce pain, decrease inflammation, or help disrupt medical issues like irritable bowel syndrome and migraines.
- Cayenne Pepper: The research shows that topical ointments made of cayenne pepper have reduced pain at rates better than a placebo.
- Turmeric: Recent studies have shown that turmeric, along with its anti-inflammatory properties, has reduced pain in patients with osteoarthritis in their knees.
- Ginger: Ginger is primarily used for its anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea properties, which if you think about it, is the same as preventing pain that occurs as a result of inflammation, swelling, and a discomfited digestive system. But did you know that ginger also has anti-carcinogenic properties?
- Marijuana: Yes, this one comes with an asterisk. We included it in this list because the evidence can’t be ignored, but the conversation has been politicized to the point that it’s best you consider this option one your own or with the advice of a medical professional.
Research is still emerging on the health effects of many of our common household spices. Although you may be able to maximize their benefits simply by using them when you cook, you can also get these spices in capsule-form to make it easy to take enough to see those effects you want to see.
Regardless, natural remedies and alternative pain management techniques still fall short of the efficacy that synthetic medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If you go the alternative route, you may never eradicate pain completely. Moreover, the most effective painkillers - opioids - are far too risky for many people especially prone to addiction.
No matter how careful we are or how comprehensive your pain management plan is, pain is something you may always have to deal with. It’s up to you whether to treat the symptom and use medication, treat the cause and endure the pain that comes with it - or talk to your primary care physician and physical therapist to create a plan that blends the best of both worlds.