Pain can become so intolerable that any of us could fall into a potentially deadly habit of reaching for a pill.
I had the opportunity to contribute to an important feature on the opioid crisis on Fox13 yesterday with a segment on pain resilience.
While I agree with a recommendation to avoid opiates entirely, especially given that dependence can begin in just a few days, this leaves a gap for how to deal with serious pain without these medications.
Pain can quickly become overwhelming.
Chronic pain in particular can feel hopeless, especially as tolerance builds to the medications that only numb current symptoms.
To start, let’s acknowledge that opiate medications only became the enormous problem they are today in the 90’s, after a sharp increase in prescribing.
We somehow managed prior to that. Declining a prescription for an opioid drug following surgery, after childbirth, or for chronic pain management is not a radical decision.
Now, let’s talk about belief and the placebo effect.
We naturally produce opioids all on our own, as well as a host of other neurobiological and physiological mechanisms in response to pain through our endocannabinoid, oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine systems.
The placebo effect provides evidence of our natural ability to respond to pain, in this case based on the expectation that we are receiving a drug.
Did you know that the placebo effect continues to rise?
That’s because we are increasingly well-trained to expect a pill to resolve our symptoms. Our body responds accordingly.
Simultaneously, with all that effective marketing by pharmaceutical companies and the well-intentioned family doctor, we trust our own bodies less and less.
As our belief in pills rises, our expectation of natural pain relief decreases. Our symptoms are increasing associated with a sense of helplessness – a mindset that actually increases pain symptoms.
Add to that, we’ve become increasingly afraid of pain.
Many of us will medicate any ache or minor injury right away with a pill (or four) from the medicine cabinet. Our tolerance for discomfort has drastically decreased as these pills have become widely distributed and accepted as safe quick fixes (and yet, Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, is often argued to be the #1 most dangerous drug in America).
Fear also increases pain severity.
This is perhaps the greatest failure of western medicine – the disempowerment of patients through a grandiose over-reliance on external intervention.
While there are countless medical advances that have profoundly improved our lives thanks to a capitalist, ego-oriented medical model, our health care system has simultaneously trained away our natural ability to manage pain and recover health. Profits are positively correlated with it.
The truth is, your mind and body are powerful sources of sophisticated, perfectly personalized medicine.
Whether we’re managing emotional or physical pain, how we perceive the pain and our role makes a world of difference.
The initial steps to reconnecting with your own physical resilience are the same regardless of the presenting problem:
1. Decrease stress
– Physical and psychosocial stress not only magnify pain symptoms, they can trigger new symptoms and disorders. When we eat an anti-inflammatory diet, create healthy work and home environments, nourish relationships and engage in regular self-care, pain symptoms decrease and we recover faster.
2. Treat mental health problems – Just like we seek out a doctor when we’re physically sick, we can reach out for help when we’re emotionally unwell. Research shows that when anxiety and depression are treated, pain is reduced.
3. Stay active – Even gentle movement, like yoga, swimming or walking, can drastically reduce pain symptom severity.
4. Learn tools to tap into your own pain relief system – such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and even virtual reality.
One of my favorite tools is restorative yoga, where we can combine multiple natural pain management tactics, including: mindfulness practice, emphasis on a resilient mindset, using breath to ride the waves of discomfort, and releasing the tight muscles that cramp up protectively around areas of pain.
Pain and other unwanted physical symptoms are messages, which we can respond to rather than mask.