Fiona McMahon, PT, DPT
Welcome back to our discussion on chronic pain. In our last blog we discussed why one might experience chronic pain and some common missteps and pitfalls that have occurred in our understanding of chronic pain. If you haven’t yet read part one of this blog, I highly recommend checking it out first so you can get the most out of this post. Click here to read it now.
For chronic pain, we have drugs, surgery, mental health therapy, physical therapy, and what is called complementary alternative medicine (CAM), which includes modalities like yoga, acupuncture, and mindfulness meditation. We discussed earlier how some opioids may actually be harmful in treating chronic pain. Unnecessary surgery can also have risks of actually increasing pain post-surgically, because it can change the brain’s sensitivity to pain. Because, for most musculoskeletal conditions, a course of conservative treatment is recommended for a period of time before turning to surgery, we will focus on non-surgical, and non-medical approaches to chronic pain.
Before we dive into specific treatments, let’s talk about what puts a person at risk for chronic pain. We can divide these risks into modifiable and non-modifiable risks. Nonmodifiable risks are situations or characteristics about ourselves that we can not change. They include socioeconomic status, where you live or have lived, cultural background and genetic factors. Unfortunately, we can’t change these things, but things like alcohol intake, nutrition, and obesity are all things we can change and have been generally understood as modifiable risk factors for chronic pain. Now that we have that in mind, let’s explore different approaches for the management of chronic pain.
Mindfulness Practice as Pain Management
Have you tried mindfulness practice? I ask this question a lot. When I ask it, I am careful to frame it in a way that does not give the patient the impression that I think their pain is all in their head, but rather, I try and present it as part of an adjunct to the current physical therapy treatment they are receiving from myself or any of the other PT’s at Beyond Basics Physical Therapy, and any other medical intervention they may be receiving.
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are somewhat based on eastern meditation practices. Not all mindfulness programs are the same, but the basic premise is to allow the participant to observe their thoughts, feelings, sensations, and attitudes without judgment. Giving them the opportunity to reframe their thoughts in a positive manner.
It may sound like a small change, but research is really starting to bear out that changing your frame of mind about pain can have some very real results. In a meta-analysis done by Hilton and colleagues, mindfulness programs were found to have statistically significant positive results on pain, depression, and quality of life.
There are a lot of ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your day to day life. Apps for your phone are really helpful. I recommend both Calm and Headspace. I personally like Calm a bit better, but both are excellent. Headspace is a good starter because it breaks up meditation into more digestible nuggets, which can be a good way to start your meditation practice. Calm, as the name implies, is more soothing. There are also guided classes you can attend in your area if that’s more up to your speed.
Be patient with mindfulness, I definitely suggest giving it the old college try. Stick with it for a week or two. If it isn’t for you, that’s perfectly okay. It’s not a moral failing, or a psychological one it’s definitely a case of different strokes for different folks.
In a study performed by Macrae and colleagues, it was found that patients who engaged in catastrophizing type behaviors experience post-surgical pain at a significantly higher rate. Catastrophizing is envisioning a situation to be far worse than it actually is. A good example for this blog would be a patient with low back pain, jumping to the conclusion that her back pain will prevent her from being able to work and she would end up on the street, secondary to her lack of ability to secure an income. Although this is a possibility, it really isn’t a realistic one and it fails to entertain the possibility of the back pain remaining stable or getting better.
Mindfulness meditation can help with catastrophizing behaviors, but sometimes you need a little extra help. Psychological interventions, like talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, can help you get a handle on these thoughts and address your current loss of function, secondary to pain in a more productive manner. Cognitive behavioral therapy as well as other forms of therapy have shown improvement in pain symptoms and quality of life in adults and has shown even more robust effects in children.
Acupuncture is an ancient form of eastern medicine that is gaining a stronger and stronger foothold in the States. It has been shown to be effective in managing a number of conditions, and chronic pain is no different. Reviews of acupuncture in scientific literature have found that acupuncture can improve pain and function. The same review found that electroacupuncture had even more robust results for pain and stiffness.
Yoga is super hip right now. In fact, it now has its own international day on June 21st of each year. It does for good reason. A consistent and solid yoga program has been shown to improve conditions such as low back pain, myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia syndrome, osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis. It can be a great option to continue to add consistent exercise and pain management into your life.
Physical Therapy and Exercise
Exercise is good for you, even if you have chronic pain. The old way of thinking was to put someone on days of bedrest when they have chronic pain. No more. Evidence has shown gentle movement progressing into more functional training can really help with chronic pain. In fact, the National Institute for Healthcare Excellence’s (NICE) osteoarthritis guideline is “exercise should be a core treatment… irrespective of age, comorbidity, pain severity and disability. Exercise should include local muscle strengthening [and] general aerobic fitness”(NICE 2014) . Geneen and colleagues found in their review and meta-analysis of the current literature that just receiving the advice to exercise alone is not sufficient to produce improvements in pain scales. That’s where the professionals like physical therapists come in, PTs have the knowledge and expertise to prescribe exercise that is not only safe and functional but hopefully kind of fun. PTs also can diagnose and treat issues such as tissues with reduced mobility and poor alignment to ensure you get the most out of your exercise.
Data show that a prescribed and monitored exercise program by a physical therapist can have good effects on pain symptoms and can help facilitate the production of your body’s own natural painkillers. Additionally, exercise can help individuals lose weight, which can reduce the pressure on one ’s joints and further improve pain.
Aside from exercise and hands-on work, we can use modalities like Kinesio tape at physical therapy. Kinesiotape has been shown to improve not only pain but decrease trigger points, improve range of motion and improve disability rates in individuals suffering from myofascial pain syndrome.
Chronic pain is complex. Rarely is there a silver bullet that will cure it. Treatment requires a multidisciplinary approach, which has been shown to be more effective than traditional treatment alone. Start small, where you feel comfortable when adding something new into your treatment approach. You will find what works best for you. A good place to start is here at Beyond Basics. Our staff not only has the expertise to treat you from a physical therapy perspective, but they also have the ability to guide you towards other traditional and complementary treatments/practitioners that can help you reach your goal. Your treatment for chronic pain does not have to be and should not be passive, please call and make an appointment today to start your journey.
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