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Jennifer Kane has been hurting for a long time. Spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, and a ripped spine following a complicated childbirth have all contributed to more than 15 years of chronic pain.

Despite multilevel spinal-fusion surgery, six weeks of physical therapy, and x-rays showing she had healed well, she still suffered intense discomfort. Kane’s doctor prescribed opioids to manage her pain, but they made her ill. She also tried the myriad muscle relaxers, antidepressants, and anti-inflammatory drugs her physician suggested. 

In the end, she concluded that relief was not going to come in the form of a pill.  

“You think doctors have a giant toolbox of things they can give you, but that’s not really true,” says Kane, an author and communications strategist in Minneapolis. “If you keep coming back because your pain isn’t getting better, there’s not much else they can do. They just told me, ‘It sucks, doesn’t it?’” 

So Kane set out to research the latest treatments for chronic pain, eventually compiling her findings into a book, Chronic Pain Recovery: A Practical Guide to Putting Your Life Back Together After Everything Has Fallen Apart. 

“For me, what worked was a combination of things,” she explains. “Acceptance, my support network, and a bunch of physical and mental lifestyle changes have added up not to a cure but to putting my pain in a manageable place.” 

Effective management of chronic pain — an often invisible but life-altering condition suffered by an estimated 100 million Americans — nearly always requires a multifaceted approach, one that takes into account physical, social, and emotional factors. 

It’s a difficult puzzle for patients and physicians alike. But with a more thorough understanding of the root causes of chronic pain and a growing number of therapies and techniques to address them, many now believe it can be not only managed but overcome.

The Body in Pain

Pain serves an important purpose: It communicates what is happening in the body. During childbirth, for instance, it indicates progression, a necessary element in the process of labor. Day by day, it alerts us to injury and illness and, like a guardrail, dissuades us from actions that lead to even more painful outcomes. 

But what if there’s no discernible cause of pain and its warning signal doesn’t fade, instead wailing like a faulty tornado siren all day and night, drowning out the birds, the voices of friends and family, even one’s own thoughts?  

Chronic pain is fundamentally different from what we experience in the immediate aftermath of an injury. Acute pain results from a specific impact or event (such as a cut or a blow) and typically dissipates in less than six weeks. Subacute pain can last up to 12 weeks. Chronic pain lasts for more than three months. 

“Studies have looked at the areas of the brain that light up with these different kinds of pain,” explains Joseph Garbely, MD, medical director at Caron Treatment Centers, an addiction-recovery facility in Pennsylvania. “With acute and subacute pain, we see activity in areas known as the pain matrix [including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, and insula].

“But with chronic pain, different areas light up. There’s a shifting of activation to the mood centers, where anxiety and depression come from.” 

That’s the challenge. Even as the brain signature of chronic pain shifts entirely to the emotion centers, patients report the same physical discomfort they felt in the acute stage.

“Unfortunately, in too many cases, acute pain doesn’t cease when it should, but continues long after the original injury has been repaired, becoming chronic pain,” writes Peter Abaci, MD, medical director of the Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center, in his book, Conquer Your Chronic Pain: A Life-Changing Drug-Free Approach for Relief, Recovery, and Restoration. 

“While acute pain can be seen as a fleeting symptom, it helps to view chronic pain as a disease in and of itself, like diabetes and hypertension.”

The Mind in Pain

Chronic pain manifests in structural changes to the brain that Abaci refers to as the “pain brain.” These include the actual loss of gray matter (which can lead to cloudy thinking and poor decision-making) and disruption in the hippocampus (which regulates learning and memory). “Chronic pain rewires the whole computer,” he explains. 

These changes create neural pathways, and their repeated activation results in a feedback loop of physical pain — and negative thoughts. 

“When pain becomes so chronic that it induces the emotional component of depression and anxiety, then the second beast starts feeding on the first.”

“All pain has an emotional component to it,” says Garbely. “When you burn your finger, you feel anxiety and worry. But those emotions are ubiquitous in chronic pain — they become front and center and lead to greater feelings of pain.” 

Salim Ghazi, MD, chair of the Department of Pain Medicine at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus, agrees. 

“When pain becomes so chronic that it induces the emotional component of depression and anxiety, then the second beast starts feeding on the first,” he says. “People feel more pain, then they get even more depressed, and the depression makes the pain worse. It becomes a vicious cycle.” 

The Opioid Pendulum

Opioids, including morphine and heroin, were popular pain-­management remedies in the 19th century. But as their addictive nature became increasingly clear, doctors began restricting their use. From the 1920s to the ’90s, opioids were prescribed only immediately following surgery or to terminally ill cancer patients. 

In the mid-’80s, Russell Portenoy, MD, a pain-management specialist, spearheaded a push to expand the use of opioids beyond the treatment of cancer pain. He studied 38 patients suffering from depression and chronic pain and found that they showed marked improvement on both fronts during several months of opioid treatment. 

“Because of that study, the pendulum swung from ‘no opioids’ to ‘opioids for all,’” says Ghazi. He also notes that Portenoy never followed up with the patients, despite requests from the study’s funders that he evaluate them at the one- and two-year marks. 

“The American Medical Association (AMA) made pain the fifth vital sign. Physicians were required to ask patients about their pain and to give opioids for strong pain,” Ghazi explains. “If we didn’t, we were reported and penalized.” (The AMA has since removed this requirement in response to the opioid crisis.) 

By the late ’90s, doctors were prescribing opioids for a wide range of chronic-pain conditions, including arthritis, herniated discs, fibromyalgia, and more. The trend peaked in 2012, with physicians writing 259 million opioid prescriptions — enough to supply every American adult.

Opioids work by mimicking a pain-reducing neurotransmitter the body produces naturally. The drug binds to opioid receptors throughout the body, blocking pain signals sent to the brain through the spinal column.

“We have about 130 neuro­transmitters in the body — a river of messenger chemicals that allow the body to do everything it needs to do, from having and expressing emotions to experiencing enjoyment to digest­ing food to fighting off disease,” explains Loretta Butehorn, PhD, CCH, a Boston-based psychologist and homeopath specializing in substance-abuse and mental-health treatment. 

“A lot of pain medications are addictive because they have a structure similar to some of those neurotransmitters. And long-term use of opioids diminishes the body’s ability to produce its own pain-suppressing neurotransmitters.”

“A lot of pain medications are addictive because they have a structure similar to some of those neurotransmitters,” she says. “And long-term use of opioids diminishes the body’s ability to produce its own pain-suppressing neurotransmitters.” 

“When you introduce opioids, you’re affecting how a person works on every level,” notes Abaci, “and there’s a big issue when you try to take them away.” 

Addiction and overdoses are not the only devastating results of opioids. Their long-term use can cause increased suffering and sensitivity over time. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia is a cruelly paradoxical condition in which chronic opioid users actually experience a heightened sensitivity to pain. 

“Not only do opioid drugs stop working effectively to dull pain,” explains Mel Pohl, MD, in The Pain Antidote, “but over time they actually start feeding and nourishing the pain — which often leads to taking higher and higher doses to get any pain relief at all.” 

Long-term opioid users may also suffer from allodynia — a condition in which normal daily stimuli (such as putting on a shirt or receiving a hug) cause excruciating pain. Sustained opioid use causes “pain fibers to do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do,” explains Garbely. “This has been known by pain specialists, but the opioid epidemic is hastening the education of physicians around how pain works.”

Today, as the opioid pendulum once again swings toward restriction, millions who endure chronic pain —and the physicians who treat them — are in desperate need of more effective alternatives to address their very real suffering. 

Overcoming Trauma

In his book The Wisdom of the Healing Wound, David Knighton, MD, describes the necessary process of cleaning out a wound — whether it’s physical, psychological, or spiritual — before it can begin to heal. Just as we need to remove dirt and gravel from a cut, Knighton suggests, we need to purge the less visible detritus (such as shame, anger, trauma, and despair) that keeps our spirits and psyches from mending. 

Multiple studies demonstrate a connection between chronic pain and trauma. As many as half of all pain patients also exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including anxiety, agitation, mood swings, nightmares, and insomnia. 

Abaci explains that there are three types of trauma associated with chronic pain: The first is the trauma of the wound itself, such as what a soldier feels when injured in battle. The second is when someone with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse experiences a heightened pain response when a past trauma is reactivated by illness or injury. The third is when chronic pain itself becomes traumatic and results in nightmares, depression, and panic attacks. 

“When a person experiences trauma, they aren’t going to get better until you get the trauma quieted down. You have to calm down the nervous system.”

“When a person experiences trauma, they aren’t going to get better until you get the trauma quieted down,” says Abaci. “You have to calm down the nervous system.” 

At the Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center, Abaci and his team employ a variety of techniques — individual counseling, group therapy, meditation, yoga, physical therapy, nutrition counseling, and art therapy. All of these work together to untangle the web of pain, trauma, and negative thoughts that reinforce the entrenched patterns of the pain brain.

Abaci shares the case of Sgt. Shane Savage as a prime example. An active-duty solider in Afghanistan in 2010, Savage suffered a concussion and 24 broken bones when his armored truck was blown apart by a roadside bomb. He was soon taking high doses of strong painkillers while still suffering from ongoing pain, PTSD, depression, and tremors. 

After he attempted suicide by overdose, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he detoxed from the painkillers — but only temporarily. 

Upon his release, he promptly resumed his morphine habit, taking up to 300 mg daily. (An average daily dose for managing extreme pain is about 60 mg.) 

It wasn’t until he completed a multidisciplinary chronic-pain program at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa, Fla., that he found sustained relief from both his pain and his ­opioid dependence.

The difference between purely pharmaceutical and more multidisciplinary approaches to treating pain, says Ghazi, is like giving people fish for one meal versus teaching them how to catch their own. 

 “It’s the difference between giving someone a pill every six hours and a program that teaches them how to cope, how to exercise, when to rest, when to push, and when not to push,” he explains.

Ghazi hopes that integrative approaches to pain, such as the one he uses at Mayo Clinic, will continue to serve as examples for other programs and clinics as the medical system seeks safer, more sustainable and effective solutions.

Changing the Pain Brain 

Chronic pain is a complex problem. There is no magic bullet or single pharmaceutical solution. ­Researchers increasingly understand it as a biopsychosocial phenomenon in which emotions, thought patterns, and beliefs play as much (or more) of a role as physical factors. 

This is why the most effective pain-rehabilitation programs now typically employ a wide variety of approaches that address the root causes of chronic pain — physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. 

“Pain pills, implanted devices, and surgeries have their use,” Abaci notes, “but they do nothing to . . . restore the ‘pain brain’ back to health. The only way to alleviate this kind of pain is to change the brain.” 

“Pain pills, implanted devices, and surgeries have their use, but they do nothing to . . . restore the ‘pain brain’ back to health. The only way to alleviate this kind of pain is to change the brain.”

The notion that the mind plays a role in chronic pain can be a tough pill to swallow for sufferers, many of whom have faced suspicion from family, friends, and doctors who believe they’re inventing or exaggerating their discomfort. 

“When it’s invisible, people think you’re making it up,” says Jennifer Kane. “And that delegitimizes the trauma you’re experiencing. No wonder people in pain are depressed!” 

This makes it all the more vital to recognize that chronic pain is real pain. At the same time, it is pain whose root causes often lie as much in the brain as in the body — and that is good news, because the brain’s inherent plasticity means that it can change. 

Kane has experienced this firsthand. “The multidisciplinary approach is a lot more work than opioids,” she says, “but it’s a better long-term strategy.” 

After emerging from the darkest of places, she embarked on her own recovery journey — which involved changing her diet, practicing mindfulness meditation, getting support for her mental health, and making myriad other physical and mental adjustments. 

“Pain makes your world so small,” she says. “You stop leaving the house and connecting with people because you can’t rely on your body. You don’t have any hope, any plans. You just have pain.”

And now? “Now I work on my dreams and goals,” Kane says. “I’ve accepted my new ground rules, and I have hope, excitement, and relationships. 

“My world still has limits, but my brain doesn’t so much anymore.

6 Alternative Pain Relievers

These are some of the nonpharmaceutical tools and techniques for managing chronic pain.

1) Acupuncture

Because its potential for pain relief is so great, acupuncture is sometimes used as anesthesia for open-heart surgery in China. It is ideal for pain resulting from structural issues, including arthritis and sciatic back pain, says Loretta Butehorn, PhD, CCH. Studies show that it beats placebo treatments in providing long-term relief from chronic lower-back pain.

2) Arnica 

A homeopathic pain remedy, Arnica montana has been used as an analgesic for bruising, swelling, and pain since the Middle Ages. Available over the counter in both tablet and topical form, it’s been shown to be as effective as ibuprofen in relieving pain in osteoarthritis sufferers, with far fewer long-term side effects.   

3) Cannabidiol (CBD) Oil

CBD is derived from cannabis, but unlike THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, CBD doesn’t result in a high. Evidence from advanced clinical trials is still scant due to marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug, but early studies suggest that CBD may reduce inflammation, calm anxiety, and relieve pain by interacting with the brain’s serotonin and vanilloid receptors, which affect mood and pain perception. CBD is available in most states in pill and oil form; it can be purchased online in any state from manufacturers. 

4) Mind-Body Modalities

Biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, and mindfulness-based pain management (known as MBPM) all encourage relaxation and reduce the emotional reactivity that increases the experience of pain: 

  • Biofeedback helps participants become more aware of subconscious bodily reactions, with the goal of gaining greater control over them. 
  • Hypnosis (including self-hypnosis) has been shown to provide significant pain reduction in chronic-pain patients, along with improved sleep, reduced anxiety, and improved quality of life.  
  • Yoga reduces pain and improves functioning in fibromyalgia sufferers thanks to its focus on tying breath to movement and calming the mind, according to a meta-analysis of complementary and alternative medicine approaches to fibromyalgia management.  
  • Mindfulness meditation can produce stronger results than morphine, reducing pain levels by 40 to 60 percent, a clinical trial suggests. (For an eight-week program of mindfulness-based pain management, check out You Are Not Your Pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being, by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman.)  

5) Massage and Bodywork

Massage increases the flow of blood and oxygen to soft tissues, helps relax tense muscles, can reduce nerve compression, and calms activation of pain-triggering and inflammatory cytokines. One study found that massage can even be helpful in acute-care settings, where surgical patients reported significant pain reduction following a 30-minute session. (For more on the health benefits of massage, see “How Massage Can Heal the Body and Mind.”) 

6) Talk, Art, and Movement Therapy

At the Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center, individual and group therapies are central parts of treatment. “Overriding negative thought processes like catastrophizing, fear, and anger, and replacing them with gratitude, resilience, compassion, and kindness, will rewire your ‘pain brain,’” notes center medical director Peter Abaci, MD. 

One of Abaci’s patients lost his warehouse job after suffering a back injury. He was consumed by anger and resentment, which amplified his pain. By teaching himself to redirect his negative thoughts toward gratitude and empathy, he successfully regained control over his pain (and found a new job that he enjoyed even more). 

The center’s treatment approach — encouraging patients to address psychological wounds with a therapist, connect with others in varying stages of their own pain journeys, and release pent-up thoughts and emotions through art, writing, and movement — appears to contribute to the healing process. These modalities can break the negative-feedback loop of emotional and physical pain and lead to greater acceptance, peace, and well-being.

This originally appeared as “Pain Relief” in the November 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Dave Cutler

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