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Treat pain without pills: 7 steps to feeling better

How to reduce chronic pain (and avoid it to start with!)


By Christina M. Gonzaga, DO
October 4, 2017

     


Chances are you or someone you know has been in some form of physical pain recently.

It’s thought that around 40% of adults in the United States have experienced pain in the last 3 months. A 2013 study found that osteoarthritis, joint and back problems are among the top 3 reasons people go to the doctor. And anecdotally, I can tell you we see a lot of complaints of headaches and jaw pain, too.

Unfortunately, research also shows that most people who have pain for a month will still have it 5 years later – even when they get treatment. The problem is that traditional measures do not work.

For many years, the medical community subscribed to what we thought was compassionate care. We lessened pain with long-term opioid medications. We believed this was safe.

We were wrong.

The fact is that opioids can still be a safe option, but only for short time periods. For example, pain pills for a few days after surgery can ease pain and allow people to get moving again and speed the healing process.

As pain turns chronic, it can become difficult to define an isolated cause behind it. Back pain is one example. Research shows that for about 85 percent of patients with back pain, there is no single cause for the pain that can be identified.

This does not mean that chronic pain is "all in your head." Human beings are complex. Our bodies, minds, emotions, relationships and environments all interact. If any one of these are out of sync, pain can be produced or worsened.

The reason is that stress, anger and other negative emotions affect the chemicals in our brains, which in turn affects our health. These toxic feelings reduce the chemicals we have that keep our brains functioning healthily, which is what can lead to depression and anxiety. And they bring on the release of chemicals that cause inflammation, which is what can lead to pain.

The good news is that you can rewire your brain with new pathways, which can reduce pain. This is known as "neuroplasticity." So how do you do it?

I recommend starting with these 7 simple steps to protect yourself against pain:

  1. Exercise for strength and flexibility.
  2. Change your habits. Get adequate sleep and establish a healthy diet.
  3. Make time for things that make you feel joy, happiness and other positive emotions.
  4. Nurture positive social support systems with family and friends.
  5. Participate in activities and work that provides you with a sense of purpose.
  6. Promote healthy thoughts that will give you the ability to bounce back from stress. (HealthPartners offers a free online program called Beating the Blues that can help you learn how to do this.)
  7. Create a clean and safe environment.

When it comes to chronic pain, there’s no one procedure or medication that’s a cure-all. That’s why HealthPartners provides a holistic approach to treating pain that’s been proven to reduce and control it.

We currently have 4 pain clinic locations. Each offers a variety of services in a single location to address the multiple causes of pain. Services include:

  • Medical care to treat underlying physical conditions that cause pain
  • Physical Therapy
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Behavioral Health support
  • Relaxation training
  • Medication management

Our first clinic opened in 2015 to serve patients who had been taking opioids but still had pain. And I’m pleased to report that more than 1,100 of the patients we’ve seen since report that their pain levels are lower by 50 percent, and that they have been able to stop taking opioids.

Our organization’s pain clinic locations:

About Christina Gonzaga, DO

Dr. Christina Gonzaga is Medical Director of the Park Nicollet Pain Management Clinic. Her focus is on providing treatment so that patients can enjoy the activities that make them smile. When she is not working, Dr. Gonzaga is an avid snowboarder, world traveler and star karaoke singer (but failed rock star).

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