Health: Five Alternative Treatments for Chronic Pain


After Prince’s untimely death this past April, rumors circulated about the musician’s addiction to painkillers and a possible overdose. In early June, an official toxicology report stated Prince had, indeed, died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, an opioid pain reliever used in cases of severe pain. While it’s still unclear as of this writing whether or not Prince was illegally using the medication, the tragedy has brought prescription opioid use back into the spotlight.

Medical researchers have been studying trends in painkiller prescriptions—and deaths connected to both legal and illegal use of opioid pain relievers—for many years. In November 2011, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, featured a study stating sales of opioid pain relievers—such as OxyContin and Vicodin, among others—had quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. The CDC says that despite the increase in sales, “there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report,” and another study, released in January, found that the number of deaths associated with prescription opioids had increased dramatically.

While the use of prescription opioids under a doctor’s supervision and monitoring can alleviate pain, the CDC’s findings and recommendations suggest that there is much work to be done in ensuring proper administration and management of these drugs. As such, finding alternative methods of pain relief that don’t involve prescription medication has become more popular. Chiropractic care and massage therapy are fairly well-known treatment methods, but here are a few more options to check out.

1. ACUPUNCTURE—Used for a variety of ailments, including chronic pain, acupuncture involves a series of very thin, sterile needles inserted into specific points in the body, such as the head, arm, leg or back. Sacramento acupuncturist Tian Wu, of Tian Chao Herbs & Acupuncture, says 60 to 70 percent of her patients use this ancient Chinese treatment for pain management. Thanks to media attention and more acceptance by the medical community, acupuncture is now one of the first lines of defense in pain treatment plans. “In the last five to 10 years, I’ve seen more patients looking at alternative medicine first,” says Wu.

Anywhere from 15 to 20 needles are used in a session, which lasts around 30 minutes. “Patients often fall asleep,” says Wu. While this may surprise some people, studies indicate that the brain releases endorphins during acupuncture treatment, leading to feelings of relaxation. Like other alternative medicine practitioners, Wu uses initial consultations to assess all aspects of a patient’s life, including diet, exercise, sleep patterns and emotional health. Potential sources of pain, such as an injury or illness, are also addressed

2. DIETARY DETOX—New studies are showing bacteria in the gut are at the root of many health issues—including chronic pain. Maxine Barish-Wreden, M.D., medical director for Sutter Health’s Institute for Health & Healing, says the institute’s work with patients involves spending a lot of time looking at nutrition. “If you want to get healthy, you have to deal with what’s going on in your gut,” she says, noting that certain foods can trigger inflammation, now believed by functional medicine practitioners to be the source of pain for many patients. Food elimination diets or “detox” programs can pinpoint problem foods. The institute’s five-week detox program follows what Barish-Wreden refers to as the “weeding, seeding and feeding” method: weed out inflammatory foods, such as flours, sugars and processed foods; seed the gut with probiotic fermented foods, including kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha; and feed yourself lots of plant-based, fiber-rich foods, such as leafy greens, beans and lentils. The results of these detox diets can be seen relatively quickly, according to Barish-Wreden: “I routinely hear people say after three weeks, ‘Wow, my joints aren’t hurting.’” 

While detox diets can be beneficial—and easily done at home—simple diet modifi-cation can also help. Avoiding or limiting nightshade fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers, can reduce pain for those with arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Barish-Wreden recommends eating what she calls “nature’s anti-inflammatories,” such as dark berries and beets, in addition to fish and seafood high in omega-3 fats, and using anti-inflammatory herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, cilantro, cinnamon, cardamom and rosemary in cooking.

3. HERBAL MEDICINE AND VITAMIN/MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS—Some people use herbal medicine for pain management. Tian Chao Herbs & Acupuncture sells more than 20,000 different herbs in pill and powder form, and Wu, who has extensive training in Chinese herbal medicine, often encounters customers who have read about the healing powers of a particular herbal remedy. She encourages consultations to discuss specific symptoms so that the right combination of herbs can be prescribed. “It’s very personalized, and everyone wants personal care,” she says. That said, Wu recommends great corydalis as a safe, non-habit-forming herbal remedy for general pain.

Vitamin and mineral supplements can also aid with pain management. Barish-Wreden says she often puts patients on magnesium citrate to help relax muscles and improve sleep. Studies on the use of vitamin D to decrease chronic pain have shown mixed results, but researchers say it can be worth trying, especially in cases where a patient’s blood levels indicate a deficiency.

4. HYPNOSIS—Clinical hypnosis to quit smoking or overeating is fairly well known, but hypnosis is also useful in help-ing people learn new techniques in self-management of chronic pain. “Part of what hypnosis does is to work with patients to give them means of modulating their level of discomfort,” says certified hypnotherapist Gary Yeatts of Roseville. By creating a personalized script, Yeatts helps patients learn how to turn down their pain. The goal, he says, is for the brain, the body’s pain regulator, to reinterpret pain as numbness.

Since people vary in the degree to which they are able to use their unconscious mind, part of Yeatts’ job is to assess a patient’s ability and willingness to be educated in using his mind to decrease the pain response. Yeatts provides a CD of the sessions so that patients can continue their treatment plan at home, and they are instructed to keep track of their level of discomfort. 

Results can vary based on the individual patient and the treatment plan. In the case of patients with pain from fibromyalgia, Yeatts has had patients report positive results after four or five sessions in an eight-session treatment plan.

5. YOGA—Local yoga instructor Lisa Kovakovich works with clients on using yoga to alleviate pain. “There are lots of misperceptions about yoga,” she says. “Many people hear the word ‘yoga’ and think ‘I can’t do that,’ but I say it’s for everyone.” Kovakovich is trained in the Krishnamacharya tradition of yoga, which focuses on breath-based movements and incorporating meditation into a yogic practice. Her one-on-one sessions involve identifying the source of the pain and creating a personalized program designed to increase flexibility. As the pain begins to dissipate with regular practice, she adds movements to develop more strength, which aids in preventing further pain.

For those who are new to yoga, Kovakovich recommends finding an all-bodies or beginner yoga class. “Get there early and chat with the teacher about any issues so you can get modifications,” she advises, adding that it’s also important for people to recognize their limitations and step back from doing certain poses if they experience discomfort.