Chronic pain isn’t a sometime condition or an occasional annoyance. Instead, gradually building up, suddenly appearing, or following a medical condition, it can have a debilitating, transformative effect on one’s quality of life.
Strictly looking at allopathic (western) medicine, treating pain is a relatively new care development. Yet, advice regularly veers toward prescription pain medications or, in the case of chronic pain, telling the patient to manage symptoms without any clear sense of direction or exploring the root cause.
In turn, functional medicine is growing as a more holistic treatment for chronic pain. No matter if a patient is living with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, joint pain, arthritis, neuropathy, or an unexplained source, functional or integrative medicine fuses naturopathic methods with wellness approaches like acupuncture, yoga, and massage with traditional Western treatments. The combination attempts to identify the source of the pain, examine how it affects a patient on a broader scale, and develop strategies – both physical and cognitive – for lessening the pain, managing symptoms, and improving overall quality of life.
If you’re still thinking about whether to take the naturopathic, integrative route, learn more about how this approach differs from traditional medicine and the benefits for pain management.
Understanding Chronic Pain
Chronic pain applies to any symptoms of pain lasting longer than three months. Symptoms aren’t just an inconvenience and, instead, may have a domino effect, influencing relationships, employment, income, and overall enjoyment of life. Sources can range from nerve damage to skeletal and muscular issues to poor communication between the brain and body to an injury that never had the chance to fully heal.
Unfortunately, as the Western medical community started taking pain management more seriously in the 1990s, one treatment emerged: Prescribing opioids to manage symptoms. Their addictive qualities came to light not long after these drugs entered the marketplace. Today, while doctors have pulled back on this approach, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) can disrupt and draw out the healing process and often simply cover up pain signals. As another concerning alternative, patients won’t be given any medication or strategy for managing pain.
At the same time, chronic pain isn’t static. Outside factors like inflammation can worsen the condition: In the case of inflammatory arthritis, this response results in the body attacking its connective tissue. Additional factors can worsen chronic pain, inflammation and its effects on your body:
- While inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, chronic inflammation is often behind chronic pain and the damage that can occur to your joints, muscles and other tissues.
- Not only does inflammation contribute to chronic pain, it can trigger related factors like fatigue, headaches, allergies and mood issues.
- Lifestyle factors can fuel the progression and prominence of inflammation, including elevated stress levels and dietary choices.
Treating Chronic Pain Through Naturopathic, Integrative Medicine
Common treatments for chronic pain reflect other allopathic strategies: Addressing symptoms without investigating why the patient is experiencing them. NSAIDs and corticosteroids mask the pain and expose patients to numerous long-term health concerns. Surgery, meanwhile, may help repair tissue and joints and improve mobility but doesn’t eliminate the pain the patient continues to experience or may only offer temporary relief.
Through integrative or functional medicine, alternatives to prescription pain medications are explored to circumvent potential side effects. Providers attempt to identify the root cause of symptoms, and treatments focus on the mind-body connection to break the cycle of pain and, ultimately, help patients spring forth to a more vibrant life.
While treatment plans may vary, naturopathic and wellness-based methods for chronic pain management may entail:
- Addressing inflammation: To avoid NSAIDs, corticosteroids and immunosuppressive drugs, treatments may focus on an anti-inflammatory diet high in antioxidants like curcumin and glutathione, as well as omega-3 fatty acids and phytonutrients. You’ll be asked to reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates and sugars. Patients may be steered toward physical activity like tai chi intended to increase joint lubrication and improve mobility and balance.
- Natural pain management: For patients living with chronic pain, massage and acupuncture may be explored to divert pain signals and improve circulation throughout the body.
- Considering a leaky gut: A leaky gut may be behind the inflammation you’re experiencing, potentially in response to a gut bacterial imbalance or stomach acid issues.
The Benefits of Naturopathic, Functional Medicine for Chronic Pain Management
The holistic approach of functional medicine offers the following benefits for chronic pain management:
- Avoiding prescription pain medications: From opioids to NSAIDs and corticosteroids, prescription pain medications have the potential to be addictive and increase your risks for peptic ulcers, renal failure, strokes, intracerebral hemorrhage, hepatoxicity, respiratory inflammation, and fungal infections and may even make your symptoms worse with time.
- Exploring a broader range of alternatives: The “drugs or deal with it” mindset of Western medicine’s approach to chronic pain management leaves many patients vulnerable, confused and on their own, with no concern regarding how said symptoms may affect their day-to-day functioning. To halt the cycle of pain starting from the brain and spreading through the body, functional medicine may explore strategies like massage, acupuncture, yoga, breath techniques and spinal manipulation. In the case of acupuncture, Chinese medicine has employed this technique for thousands of years to stimulate the central nervous system and decrease symptoms of pain.
- A more personalized approach: Functional medicine acknowledges that prescriptive solutions don’t work with every patient. Chronic pain management is no different. In turn, this exploratory, naturopathic approach may begin with strategies already listed and potentially introduce various supplements and herbal remedies that promote body and mind relaxation.
- Rethinking the source of pain: Western medicine often treats pain as absolute: It’s there, or it’s not. The “why” isn’t investigated. Mindfulness has started entering the conversation for integrative medicine: Originating in Eastern medicine, mindfulness can help you reach a state of calm and improve awareness about your body. For chronic pain management, these techniques have helped patients better understand when and in which conditions their brain signals pain. This approach offers more insight into the source and triggers of symptoms and can train your body to alter its response to certain stimuli.
Looking for a more naturopathic approach to chronic pain management? Turn to CentreSpringMD. We’re a holistic primary care practitioner specializing in integrative family medicine. Interested in learning more? Contact us today to set up an appointment.