By Dr. Mercola
Pain is the reason behind about 80 percent of physician visits in the U.S. Not only does pain, especially persistent and chronic pain, take a physical toll but it also interferes with patients’ social, mental, emotional and spiritual sides.
A person struggling with pain may find it difficult to carry out daily activities and engage in social activities. Psychological health and quality of life also often suffer. Unfortunately, medication is the go-to pain treatment in the U.S.
As a result, we now have an epidemic of opioid overuse and misuse, with people quickly becoming hooked on the drugs, often after taking them for chronic pain, like back pain. Deaths from overdosing on opioid painkillers now far surpass those from illicit street drugs.
The point is, if you’re struggling with chronic pain, it makes sense to exhaust all other options before moving on to prescription drugs. And one option that’s definitely worth trying due to its effectiveness and excellent safety record is massage.
Massage Helps Relieve Pain
A systematic review and meta-analysis, published in the journal Pain Medicine, included 60 high-quality and seven low-quality studies that looked into the use of massage for various types of pain, including muscle and bone pain, headaches, deep internal pain, fibromyalgia pain and spinal cord pain.1
The review revealed that massage therapy relieves pain better than getting no treatment at all. When compared to other pain treatments like acupuncture and physical therapy, massage therapy still proved beneficial and had few side effects.
In addition to relieving pain, massage therapy also improved anxiety and health-related quality of life. It’s unknown how massage, which involves the manipulation of soft tissue, alleviates pain, but it’s likely that multiple mechanisms are at play. These include factors that are:
Massage is far from a new form of pain relief and was described by Hippocrates as an effective therapy for sports or war injuries.2 As noted in Pain Medicine in a call to action for massage therapy for pain, this age-old practice is desperately needed in our “pill for every ill” mentality:3
” … [T]he ‘pill for every ill’ mentality of many Americans, including those investors in pharmaceutical stocks, has generated significant health and social issues for this country.
This issue is exemplified by the major public health crisis of chronic pain in America and has been highlighted recently by its most prominent symptom — opioid misuse and addiction.”
Massage Might Work By Reducing Local Inflammation and Providing Stress Relief
The benefits of massage therapy for pain relief are established enough that it’s commonly used during physical therapy and rehabilitation from injury. In one study, researchers took muscle biopsies from study participants who had received massage therapy or no treatment for exercise-induced muscle damage.
It turned out that massage therapy reduced inflammation and promoted mitochondrial biogenesis in the skeletal muscle.4
In addition, a review published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice revealed that moderate pressure massage reduced depression, anxiety, heart rate and cortisol levels and altered EEG patterns to indicate a relaxation response.5 According to the study:
“Moderate pressure massage has also led to increased vagal activity and decreased cortisol levels.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging data have suggested that moderate pressure massage was represented in several brain regions including the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the anterior cingulate cortex, all areas involved in stress and emotion regulation.”
Frequency and Dosage Matter for Certain Types of Pain
Some people experience immense relief from massage, anecdotally speaking, while others do not. The difference might come down to the dose. Researchers from the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle looked into the optimal massage dose for people with chronic neck pain.
Study participants received 30-minute massages two or three times a week, or 60-minute massages one, two or three times weekly (with a comparison group that received no massages).6
Compared with the no-massage group, those who got massages three times a week were nearly five times more likely to report a significant improvement in function and more than twice as likely to report a significant decrease in pain.
The best pain-relief results were obtained by those who received 60-minute massages two or three times a week. It appears that longer massages worked best for neck pain, as did multiple treatments a week, especially during the first four weeks.
If you try massage therapy and find you’re not getting relief, you therefore may benefit from altering the dose and frequency. There are other variables that impact massage effectiveness as well, such as the technique used and the skill level of the massage therapist.
When choosing a massage therapist, ask your holistic health care provider to recommend a certified massage therapist who is experienced in the type of pain relief you’re seeking.
More Than 80 Percent of Hospitals Now Offer Massage Therapy
A survey by the American Hospital Association (AHA) found that 82 percent of hospitals offering complementary and alternative therapies include massage therapy as an option.
Among them, more than 70 percent offer massage therapy for pain management and relief.7 The practice has a positive reputation among those who have tried it. According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA):8
“In a recent consumer survey commissioned by AMTA, 91 percent of respondents agreed that massage can be effective in reducing pain, and nearly half of those polled (47 percent) have had a massage specifically for the purpose of relieving pain.”
AMTA notes that massage has a beneficial impact on pain just by the virtue of human touch, and may be especially effective for relieving low back pain, migraine pain and pain from carpal tunnel syndrome. AMTA points out several proven benefits of massage for pain relief:
- Massage therapy may alleviate the perception of pain and anxiety in cancer patients
- Massage therapy may reduce post-traumatic headaches better than cold packs
- Massage received in a hospital after heart bypass surgery reduces pain and muscle spasms
- Massage stimulates your brain to produce endorphins. According to AMTA, “Massage therapy benefits that are applicable to sufferers of any kind of pain include the stimulation of endorphin production in the brain and the encouragement of patient confidence in improving their condition.”
Stronger massage stimulates blood circulation to improve the supply of oxygen and nutrients to body tissues and helps your lymphatic system to flush away waste products. It also eases tense and knotted muscles and stiff joints, improving mobility, and flexibility. Massage is said to increase activity of the vagus nerve, 1 of 10 cranial nerves, that affects the secretion of food-absorption hormones, heart rate, and respiration.
19 Non-Drug Solutions for Pain Relief
Massage is only one non-drug option for pain relief. Below are 19 more that may be very effective in helping you become pain-free. I do understand there are times when pain is so severe that a prescription drug may be necessary. Even in those instances, the options that follow may be used in addition to such drugs, and may allow you to at least reduce your dosage. If you are in pain that is bearable, please try these first, before resorting to prescription painkillers of any kind.
1. Eliminate or radically reduce most grains and sugars from your diet: Avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels and decrease insulin and leptin resistance, which is one of the most important reasons why inflammatory prostaglandins are produced. That is why stopping sugar and sweets is so important to controlling your pain and other types of chronic illnesses.
2. Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat: My personal favorite is krill oil. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory painkillers work, by manipulating prostaglandins.)
3. Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain.
4. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a drug-free approach for pain management of all kinds. EFT borrows from the principles of acupuncture in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system. It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, and negative emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain.
By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you rebalance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain.
5. K-Laser Class 4 Laser Therapy: If you suffer pain from an injury, arthritis, or other inflammation-based pain, I’d strongly encourage you to try out K-Laser therapy. It can be an excellent choice for many painful conditions, including acute injuries.
By addressing the underlying cause of the pain, you will no longer need to rely on painkillers. K-Laser is a class 4 infrared laser therapy treatment that helps reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance tissue healing — both in hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, or even bones.
The infrared wavelengths used in the K-Laser allow for targeting specific areas of your body and can penetrate deeply into the body to reach areas such as your spine and hip.
6. Chiropractic: Many studies have confirmed that chiropractic management is much safer and less expensive than allopathic medical treatments, especially when used for pain such as low back pain.
Qualified chiropractic, osteopathic, and naturopathic physicians are reliable, as they have received extensive training in the management of musculoskeletal disorders during their course of graduate healthcare training, which lasts between four to six years. These health experts have comprehensive training in musculoskeletal management.
7. Acupuncture can also effectively treat many kinds of pain. Research has discovered a “clear and robust” effect of acupuncture in the treatment of back, neck and shoulder pain, osteoarthritis, and headaches.
8. Physical therapy has been shown to be as good as surgery for painful conditions such as torn cartilage and arthritis.
9. Astaxanthin is one of the most effective fat-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. Higher doses are typically required and you may need 8 milligrams (mg) or more per day to achieve this benefit.
10. Ginger: This herb has potent anti-inflammatory activity and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
11. Curcumin: In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility. A past study also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the overproduction of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.9
12. Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or “Indian frankincense,” this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
13. Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form but eating fresh pineapple, including some of the bromelain-rich stem, may also be helpful.
14. Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a “joint lubricant” and an anti-inflammatory. I have used this for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mildly annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards. I used a topical preparation for this.
15. Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.
16. Cayenne Cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body’s supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmits pain signals to your brain.
17. Medical cannabis has a long history as a natural analgesic. Its medicinal qualities are due to high amounts (up to 20 percent) of cannabidiol (CBD), medicinal terpenes and flavonoids.
Varieties of cannabis exist that are very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the psychoactive component of marijuana that makes you feel “stoned” — and high in medicinal CBD. The Journal of Pain (JOP),10 a publication by the American Pain Society (APS), has a long list of studies on the pain-relieving effects of cannabis.
19. Grounding, or walking barefoot on the earth, may also provide a certain measure of pain relief by combating inflammation.
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