Millions more women than men live with pain that lingers for months or even years, but compelling research shows that alternative therapies can offer lasting relief.
When I operate on a patient with heart disease, the ravaging effects of the illness are immediately apparent. I can see the source of the problem -- a damaged blood vessel, a clogged artery -- and know exactly what I need to do to try to fix it. Unfortunately, that's not the case with chronic pain. Its source can be difficult to pinpoint, it's hard to measure, and it's not something a doctor can stitch up with sutures. And for reasons science can't fully explain, of the more than 100 million Americans who experience chronic pain (defined as any discomfort that lasts three to six months or longer), the majority are women -- they're more than twice as likely as men to have rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, and seven times as likely to have fibromyalgia.
For generations, the default method for treating pain has remained largely the same: prescription and over-the-counter painkillers. But sustained use of painkillers can lead to its own problems, including stomach ulcers, liver failure, and addiction (about 1.9 million Americans with legitimate prescriptions are hooked on their pain meds). The good news: As a doctor who has long praised alternative therapies, I'm happy to report that pain management is one area in which drug-free treatments are showing promising results. In fact, a recent survey found that 75 percent of integrative-medicine centers across the country were successful at relieving chronic pain with therapies that don't come in the form of a pill.
Up to 84 percent of people will experience lower-back pain at some point in their lives -- whether due to injury (think: a yoga move gone wrong), poor posture, or osteoporosis that leads to fractures in the vertebrae of the lower spine. Debilitating backaches are actually so widespread that they account for roughly 385 million missed workdays in the United States every year. If you're dealing with acute pain, it helps to start moving as soon as possible to keep muscles flexible, but avoid strenuous activity and try using a heating pad to relax injured or overused muscles; the discomfort should subside in a matter of weeks. For chronic sufferers, however, the pain may never fully go away.
Alternative Rx: Osteopathic Manual Treatment (OMT)
This hands-on form of therapy is much more than a spa-style rubdown: An osteopathic physician will use techniques like stretching and kneading soft tissue around inflamed muscles or applying pressure at specific sites along the back, known as myofascial trigger points, where muscle fibers are tight. A 2013 study in the Annals of Family Medicine found that 63 percent of patients with chronic low-back pain who underwent six sessions of OMT over eight weeks saw a 30 percent or greater reduction in discomfort, decreasing their need for painkillers.
Blame this kind of joint pain on cartilage -- or a lack thereof. As the connective tissue wears away, the subsequent bone-on-bone contact can trigger pain ranging from mild to severe. It's more common among obese people (as excess weight increases pressure on joints) and the elderly (because cartilage deteriorates with age), but it can also develop from an injury like a torn meniscus or ACL. Cortisone injections are one option, but overdoing the shots may worsen joint damage, which is why many doctors limit the number of injections patients can receive in a year.
Alternative Rx: Acupuncture
This needling technique has been used to treat pain for centuries, and evidence suggests it can be particularly effective in treating knee osteoarthritis. A 2012 study found that acupuncture could be a low-cost substitute for knee surgery, providing substantial pain relief in about a third of patients. Researchers believe the needles may trigger nerves to signal the brain to release endorphins that naturally dull pain.
A subset of back pain, sciatica affects up to 5 percent of women and refers to pain that can begin in the low back and radiate south to the legs and feet. The pain can vary widely, from a burning sensation to numbness and tingling, brought on by the compression of nerves that begin along the lower spinal column. A herniated disk is one of the most common culprits, but injury, obesity, and even prolonged sitting can also trigger the condition.
Alternative Rx: Physical Therapy (PT)
While severe pain from sciatica will make you want to do anything but exercise, prolonged inactivity can make symptoms worse. Once your acute pain subsides (rest for no more than two days), PT can help prevent further injury to the back by improving posture and flexibility and strengthening muscles for support. One study found that 79 percent of sciatica patients who did physical therapy in addition to receiving routine treatment and medication from a doctor reported complete recovery or significant improvement after a year, while only 56 percent of patients who didn't receive the PT saw similar results.
The most common cause of general musculoskeletal pain in women ages 20 to 55 is also the hardest to treat. Unlike other common types of pain, fibromyalgia has no known cause and is characterized by fatigue and widespread aches that can leave the whole body feeling tender. The problem likely lies with the body's central nervous system. In most cases, when the brain processes pain, it sends the signal back to the site of the problem (bang your knee, and you feel a sharp sting on the spot), but with fibromyalgia, the signal is amplified, affecting the body at many different points. While there is no cure for fibromyalgia, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly can help manage the symptoms. Some prescription drugs have also been effective at keeping pain under control.
Alternative Rx: Hypnotherapy
The healing powers of hypnotherapy, in which a licensed hypnotherapist guides your mind to a highly focused mental state while easing your body into deep relaxation, are impressive, with studies showing its ability to significantly decrease pain levels and reduce painkiller use. While it's not completely clear why hypnosis works so well, some brain imaging studies suggest it reduces activity in areas of the brain that process pain. And it may not take long: Patients in one study reported relief that lasted for three months after just eight one-hour sessions.
3 Natural Treatments for Relief:
In my house, this is the go-to pain remedy for bruises and sore muscles, and research has shown it can even help soothe arthritis aches. One study of 204 people with osteoarthritis in their hands found that using arnica gel for 21 days worked just as well at zapping pain as ibuprofen.
Massaging certain essential oils onto aching body parts can trigger a calming response. People with fibromyalgia who applied a mixture of oils (including rosemary, eucalyptus, and aloe vera) to areas of discomfort as needed for one month reported significantly less pain than those using a placebo oil, according to a study in the Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain.
In a study in Arthritis & Rheumatism, osteoarthritis sufferers who consumed the most vitamin C (an average of 500 milligrams per day) reported less knee pain and were three times less likely to experience a progression of their symptoms over seven to ten years than those consuming the least -- possibly due to the vitamin's protective effect on cartilage and bone. Try snacking on C-rich foods like guavas and red peppers.