Natural Pain Remedies

10 Drug-Free Ways to Tune out Pain
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Pain means "ouch" and pill means "ahhhh" to many of us. But medication is far from the only option for dealing with chronic or sudden pain. Techniques that distract you, relax you, or help you rethink what you're feeling can actually alter the circuits of your brain that process and modulate pain, researchers say.

"Most patients want something fast acting, but complementary and alternative approaches to pain are very helpful and often overlooked," says anesthesiologist and pain-medicine specialist Paul Christo, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and host of the radio program Aches and Gains.

Consider these ten brain-over-pain approaches:

1. Listen to Music -- and Really Get Into It

Music activates sensory pathways that compete with pain pathways. High-anxiety subjects who could become absorbed in musical tasks, like identifying notes in the music, lessened their pain, found researchers at the University of Utah Pain Research Center in a 2012 study. "Even 10 to 15 minutes of listening to music or playing music yourself can be a calming distraction," Christo says.

Distracting activities aren't just a mind game; they literally lessen the quantity of pain signals traveling up the spinal cord to the brain, according to a report in Current Biology in May 2012. Research shows that music is especially effective for palliative care and cancer pain, Christo adds.

Play a Video Game to Relieve Pain

Games, especially 3-D, virtual-reality types, work on multiple levels to reduce pain, according to a study from the American Pain Society. Beyond distracting you, gaming seems to reduce stress and fear (which can worsen pain perception) by occupying the senses of vision and touch. Full-immersion games seem to trigger biochemical changes in the brain that reduce pain signals while also releasing endorphins, the body's own painkillers, the researchers say.

Studies have shown this effect on both kids and adults. Burn patients' pain ratings dropped 30 to 50 percent while gaming, and the activity also worked well for coping with chemotherapy-related pain.

Have Sex to Relieve Pain

Pain may leave you feeling unsexy, but several studies have found sexual activity to be a natural pain reliever. And not just in the heat of the moment, but also during both the anticipation/fantasy phase and for a short time afterward. The exact mechanisms aren't known, but release of oxytocin (a hormone that eases stress) and endorphins (the body's natural painkiller) may be involved. Sex may also lead to a release of cortisone, which regulates pain-causing inflammation in, for example, rheumatoid arthritis.

The insula region of the brain, which is also active in response to pain, lights up during MRI sequences of sex. It's also been noted that the so-called "O" face, seen at orgasm, is the same face made in response to pain.

Get a Dog to Relieve Pain

A recent study found that just 10 to 15 minutes of interaction between pain-clinic patients and therapy dogs reduced patients' chronic pain -- and the benefits seemed to last for hours. "Dogs can act as a distraction from pain, but chemical and hormonal changes also seem to occur," says Dr. Paul Christo of Johns Hopkins. Touching a dog seems to decrease levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase endorphins.

You don't need a trained therapy dog to see this effect, Christo says. Dogs also motivate us to move, which is useful because people in pain tend to be less active, although activity can actually help reduce pain, he says.

Shift Your Focus to Relieve Pain

Ruminating on pain -- which pain-medicine experts also call "catastrophizing" -- happens when you focus on how much pain you're in, to the exclusion of other thoughts. It's an easy habit to fall into -- but people who do it seem to experience worse pain. The habit may even cause a damaging inflammatory response.

The key to stopping yourself from ruminating on pain is to be aware that you're doing it. When you catch yourself, say out loud: "OK, enough." Switch to other thoughts or activities.

When researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied 214 people with chronic face and jaw pain, they found that those who dwelled the least on pain experienced less pain and slept better. (Less sleep is linked with increased sensitivity to pain.)

Retrain Your Brain to Relieve Pain

You can train your brain to interpret pain in new ways that give you a sense of self-control over it, says pain-medicine specialist Paul Christo. In cognitive behavioral therapy, a trained therapist walks you through exercises that break counterproductive thinking patterns. Once you learn more effective techniques, you can use them yourself at home.

Examples: Rethinking what you feel as "pressure" instead of "pain." Learning to tell yourself, "I can handle this" instead of "I'm in misery." Practicing cognitive behavioral tactics daily may even change pain perception systems over the long term. Mindfulness meditation is a related form of this therapy that's been found to cut pain perception by one-third to one-half.

Try Prayer to Relieve Pain (if You're Religious)

Spiritually based meditation exercises were linked to greater pain tolerance in a randomized study of various forms of relaxation, in a 2005 study. In another study, Catholics placed in a functional MRI machine who were shown an icon of the Virgin Mary had lower perceived intensity of a painful stimulus. (Non-Catholics, for whom the icon presumably had less meaning, didn't achieve the same calm, distracted state.)

"There's a lot of unity and camaraderie when you're with others of the same faith," says Dr. Paul Christo of Johns Hopkins. "That's not to say it will take away all pain and discomfort, but prayer and spiritual practices reduce stress, which is associated with pain, and provide an inner strength that helps you overcome pain."

Try Breathing Techniques to Relieve Pain

Lamaze-style breathing during childbirth is a popular example of this form of mind-body awareness. A 2010 study in the journal Pain, involving women ages 45 to 65 with fibromyalgia, found that those who used slow breathing significantly reduced pain perception and negative emotions. Other research shows its effectiveness with low back pain.

Slow, deep breathing is the simplest form. Breathe in deeply on the syllable re, then exhale on the syllable lax. Keep repeating. Another example: the 4-7-8 breathing method.

Keep a Pain Journal to Relieve Pain

Lessen chronic pain by acknowledging that it exists and how it feels for you, says pain-medicine specialist Paul Christo. Record when it's good or bad and what makes it feel that way over time -- what you're doing, what kind of medication or other treatments help, what patterns that you notice, if any. By scheduling activities during times when pain is most eased, you can do more and feel better, Christo says.

Try Hypnosis to Relieve Pain

"Hypnosis is extremely underutilized," says Paul Christo of Johns Hopkins. "People fear that it's mind control that will make you strip in public, but it's nothing like that." A trained practitioner induces a daydreamlike trance (a state of deep relaxation) and uses the power of suggestion to reframe pain, such as changing a painful sensation to something cool and pleasant.

With some training and practice, many people can learn self-hypnosis. Hypnosis reduces the way the spinal cord processes pain, lowers pain intensity, and curbs the emotional response to pain. It's been shown to work well with burn victims and for the pain of diabetic neuropathy, shingles, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), irritable bowel, arthritis, low back pain, and headache. A large study published in The Lancet in 2000 found that it worked to ease pain and anxiety in surgery patients.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

almost 5 years, said...

Everyone of these is really #5 SHIFT YOUR FOCUS. So why do we need 9 other ways to describe that activity?

over 5 years, said...

I will meditate with my dog while listening to music and breathing deeply.

over 5 years, said...

I would have liked to be able to print it

over 5 years, said...

I'm in chronic severe pain from Post-Polio & Guillian-Barre. The article was great, it reminded me of things I've done which worked. For me at present the two most helpful non-medical tools are: 1. MUSIC, music & music. I am a musician & songwriter. I play the guitar or piano hours on end. The level of pain really decreases. I also find listening to calming, relaxing music helps me to sleep. An additional benefit is that my songwriting hobby has turned into a succesful second career. 2. VOLUNTEERING for Make-A-Wish! I love helping children who live with life threatening illnesses, as I have done. The work is so distracting that I find myself doing more than I thought possible. Volunteering has the added benefits of feeling worthwhile, productive and making me feel happy. Plus it gets me out of the house and I get to meet a lot of people. Highly recommend becoming a volunteer. BTW - I am going to have my wife read your article. Our last dog passed away and I really want another. I'm often home and need the companionship. My last dog loved being walked from my powerchair. The article was spot on as far as the benefits of having a dog.

over 5 years, said...

I received "Sarah" after I lost both my parents...for therapy. After my back surgery for disc, stenosis and arthritis, Sarah spurred me to walking daily 2-4 mi. Years later, she kept her therapy job by getting me through cervical spine surgery, more walking and a reason to keep going. At 77, I am still going, we walk 2-4 miles daily depending on the weather. I take an Ibuprofin at nite, that is all and going strong. Dogs are the best.

over 5 years, said...

This article is short of calling it YOGA. Yoga is good and there is no need to try to shade it any other color: 3D games, play with your dog...common. Hypnosis, breathing, acknowledgement, medidating...those are real and good when mastered. This reminds me of my daughters 8th grade paper on how to feel better. Give me an article on Yoga and let me learn or remind me of more realistic approaches. Namaste.

over 5 years, said...

Pain is part of my life. I do take pain killers but just to take the "edge" off. Because of 3 hernias in my spine I regularly have a trapped nerve, which of course is totally incapacitating. The hernias can be "fixed" but after some years one tends to develop hernias above and below the fixed ones, so I postpone an operation as long as possible. As long as there is no trapped nerve I keep moving about (slowly!), doing light work, no lifting and no using anything that has a type of "broom" handle because rotating the spine is a real nono. Migraine is another kind of pain that bugs me some 3 to 5 times a week. It's a leftover from a car accident. My way to handle that is to take enough medication to stop vomiting and then I'm off into the garden, even when it rains. I sit on my garden cushion and weed, using a golf umbrella when it rains. Because we have an English cottage type garden there is plenty to weed, which I have always loved. It's a job that requires concentration because if I pull out the wrong plants he ones that seed themselves won't be back the next season. The concentration lessens the awareness of the pain, and at the same time the garden gets done, rewarding me the next year with a beautiful spread of flowers. I'm well aware that it looks completely daft, weeding under a large brolly but I don't care because it makes life bearable. It stops me from sitting propped up (I cannot bear pressure on my skull except for my forehead which is numb) in the couch, in the dark and in total silence because that sort of situation makes one concentrate on the pain even more. Indeed music is also a good way to detract from pain, especially when using head phones. Bravo for all your suggestions!

over 5 years, said...

Something I learned about re Catholicism--that your suffering can be offered for the souls in purgatory--I wasn't brought up to believe in any of that stuff but I found this concept to be strangely comforting. More and more I'm learning things about "religious" ideas that don't seem logical--such as, I pray a LOT but I think many people would say that I don't "believe in God". But it seems to me that I can't help praying...there's something basic, essential about it...

over 5 years, said...

I just finished reading Paul Brand's "The Gift Nobody Wants", about pain but about far more than that...this conversation reminds me of something I found in there which I'd already discovered for myself, for emotional pain: WORK! When I dither and procrastinate and try to think myself out of anxiety, everything gets bigger and bigger and bigger and I worry more and more--I'm always astounded when I pull myself together and focus on one thing (thinking that everything else is sure to collapse around me) such as paying the bills--when I'm done paying the bills, I find that my anxiety has lessened not just about the unpaid bills but about all the other stuff! The "pile" just SEEMS to be less daunting, and I feel happier. Doesn't seem to matter if I do something I think is important or something which seems less important--it's the act of DOING SOMETHING that lifts my mood. Years ago there was a book titled "Surviving the Loss of a Love" (don't remember author) and one line in there stuck with me all these years: "Productive work rests the emotions." My current situation as caregiver really responds to this. (No, I can't always just jump up and DO this. I spend my share of time catastrophizing and worrying, but it's getting better as I become more accepting.) Don't know if this would help with physical pain but I've had occasional migraines for years and I tend to just keep on working on stuff instead of resting and I forget about the pain except when it's particularly nauseating. Then, I take a pill! (But I find that I hardly ever take it -- a triptan -- I think I just feel better knowing it's there.)

over 5 years, said...

I learned some new ways of dealing with pain.

over 5 years, said...

The point is if YOU DO something, almost anything, you are getting your mind off whatever it is. The mind, you in effect, gets on to "something else", the cause of the pain is being a bit side-stepped. As a Catholic, there are so many opportunities to focus on "prayer", icons, many things in fact which we are happy to believe are there to draw us toward them and their practical use. If it really gets a bit much, try to compare your current problems with those suffered by the Christ (for us for a start). Contemplation of the Cross, the Crucifix, is encouraged anytime to help us when in need, personally I have found it also gets us in a bit of order too!