What can be done to get the upper hand on repeated discomfort?

I treat a lot of people with chronic pain, and it’s a symptom close to my heart as making a change to chronic pain can have a huge impact in someone’s life. So I thought it would be handy to pass on some ways we can deal with it.

Depending on the source, anywhere between 45% (National Pain Society) and 80% (NHS) of UK adults experienced at least 24 hours of back pain in 2013. Around 8 million people in the UK suffer from chronic pain. This means 1 in 8 people are dealing with pain on a daily basis.

For those of us that suffer from chronic pain, such as –

  • headaches and migraines
  • damaged or worn joints
  • stiff and aching muscles
  • nerve or bone pain
  • pre-menstrual pain
  • cancer pain

– the relief of this pain is a valuable commodity: we feel freer, happier and less irritable, often we have greater flexibility, we can work more efficiently and there is less strain in our relationships. Oh, and no pain.

Pharmaceutical drugs, particularly opiates, are the mainstay treatment for chronic pain when you visit the GP or the hospital. Whilst medical drugs hold a key to stopping (or at least calming) the feeling of pain, not only do they come with many and varied side effects, but they also fail to resolve the cause of the pain, thereby often creating a dependency on the drug to maintain a pain-free or pain-reduced state. So they can be seen in this light as an incomplete approach to pain management.

So what else can be done to alleviate pain? Here are my 3 best tips:

1. Emotions
Pain is an emotion. Without the emotion it is just a sensation, equal to any other. That is not to say that pain isn’t real or that it isn’t there for good reason. Pain is an indication of a physical problem, that something needs to be attended to. In order to give it validity and priority, pain comes with a strong emotional component. However, if the pain is not easily resolved and lingers on through time, what then? This strong emotional component makes it draining and exhausting.

When we can change its name (change how we label it) from a ‘pain’ to a ‘sensation’, it no longer has to be a discomfort but just something that is there. Pain makes us say, “I am hurt!” By not taking the pain personally, it can be examined as a sensation that doesn’t even belong to you – it is a separate thing to be observed in its own right. A quadriplegic patient of mine deals with his daily pain in this way with great mastery, and anyone can too.

It is really just the conscious practice of something that happens anyway – when you have chronic pain, there are times when you are distracted (watching TV, talking with someone) and it isn’t noticed. In this situation, suddenly the pain that usually drains us has no effect on us at all…

Pain highlights the parameters within which we can safely operate when we have come out of alignment in some way. Pain is there to shout loud and clear that our attention (and action) is needed in a particular area of the body. The nervous system communicates the concept of pain from the sight of injury, via the brain, to the mind to stimulate appropriate action to resolve the problem.

If you remove the ‘ouch’ and just feel the sensation without judgement or preference it is no longer experienced as pain, but furthermore the healing time from cuts or burns is often dramatically improved.

Some cultures even use pain deliberately as a tool to develop strength of spirit and self knowledge:

My dear chums of the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon undergo a dramatic manhood initiation ritual whereby boys as young as 12 put both hands into 2 woven gloves filled with hundreds of bullet ants, paraponera clavata, getting stung hundreds and even thousands of times in a 10-minute period. Venom spreads throughout the blood stream, and the outrageous pain – it has been described as “the worst pain known to man” – circulates throughout the entire body, at high intensity, for 24 hours.

To become a man of the tribe, a worthy warrior, each initiate must wear the gloves at least 20 times until they can show no fear or pain throughout the entire ordeal.

They say this mastery of pain, added with the immune-strengthening benefits of the ant venom, brings unbridled joy, which has brought them the title of ‘the Happiest Tribe in the Amazon’. The 13-year-old boy in the picture below advises: “You show who is the boss – is the pain the boss of you? No, you show the pain you are the boss. The pain doesn’t matter, you matter.” His uncle says, “Don’t see how you respond to the pain, see how the pain responds to you.”

2. Keep your body moving efficiently
Pain is a sign of imbalance. Whatever exercise you enjoy best, such as qigong, tai chi, yoga, martial arts, swimming or cycle it is so important to keep your blood and qi circulating, to keep your joints mobile, to keep your muscles nourished through flexing and relaxing, and to release feel good hormones such as endorphins – exhilarating natural pain relievers.

When we practise moving our bodies in a mindful and health-conscious way, we help to regulate and unify the whole system, breaking down stagnation and strengthening weaknesses to restore the free flow of blood and qi thoughout our internal architecture.

Healthy movement helps us heal, build strength and resilience, and find clarity.

Not only personally and with people in my qigong classes, but also with many patients to which I have prescribed movements, I seen great changes in the level of pain experienced, energy levels increased, posture and gait improved, increased levels of self confidence and an improved use of the body so that the injured part is supported by the rest.

3. Acupuncture
Acupuncture stimulates the nervous system, as evidenced by a large body of research, facilitating the release of neurochemical messenger molecules (to release hormones such as endorphins and serotonin that relieve pain). The resulting biochemical changes influence the body’s homeostatic mechanisms, promoting physical and emotional well-being.

I’ve had a patient reduce chronic pain from 8-9 out of 10 on a daily level to 1 out of 10 after only 3 weekly treatments, others get rid of years of stiffness and pain in the back or shoulders in 1-2 treatments, some (such as myself) getting rid of ’10 out of 10 pain’ migraines for good, and completely resolve period pain. Over the years I’ve treated many people in chronic pain, largely to a great reduction of their pain levels. Sometimes only temporarily after each treatment at first, but always working to establish long term, lasting improvements.

One reason this works is because certain acupuncture points have been shown to affect areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety.

Reviews have shown acupuncture to be effective for chronic back pain, osteoarthritis and headache. It also truly fantastic at resolving sciatica (nerve pain shooting from the hip down the leg), pain in the knees and ankles, and aching organs (such as with liver cirrhosis).

Acupuncture also helps resolve the side effects of pharmaceutical medication and helps the liver and kidneys deal with any detoxification needed.

4. Breathing (added bonus!)
Balanced breathing calms the mind, the emotions and helps regulate the whole body, thereby reducing pain. If you haven’t got it already, learn this YinYang Breathing technique.