There are a lot of different types of pain but, when we look at physical pain (as
opposed to mental or emotional pain), there are fundamentally two different broad
types; acute and chronic.
Acute pain is a very important safety feature. It is an
immediate pain which warms us of damage to our bodies, whether caused by a break,
sprain, wound, illness or infection. It tells us broadly what is wrong and seeks
to get us to take action to remedy a problem.
Chronic pain is a long-term concern and, unlike acute pain, continues either after
treatment and healing have occurred, or because the underlying condition persists.
Chronic pain is less well understood, and also generally less well treated, than
acute pain. Sometimes it occurs because of a long-term disease, such as arthritis
or lupus. Sometimes, it occurs because of the healing process, where an injury has
healed but the way in which it has done so is such that it continues to cause pain,
such as nerve damage (also know as neuralgia). Other causes of neuralgia include
diabetes, AIDS, shingles and lyme disease. Fibromyalgia is another condition which
includes chronic pain as a key element.
Chronic pain can be distressing, frustrating, and tiring. It can impact on every
aspect of a person’s life. It is relatively poorly understood by conventional medical
practice and, as a result, many treatments for chronic pain tend to have alternative
Conventional treatments for chronic pain include the following:
* Antidepressant medication, such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline, or duloxetine,
often used in smaller doses as a muscle relaxant
* Anticonvulsant medication, such as carbamazepine, gabapentin, lamotrigine, phenytoin,
* Mild analgesics, such as aspirin or paracetamol,
* Non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, diclofenac or
* Narcotic analgesics, such as codeine, Tramadol or oxycodone
* Injections of local anaesthetic and/or cortisone steroids
* Physical therapy, physiotherapy and prescribed exercise
* Procedures such as radiofrequency lesioning, or nerve ablation using heat, balloon
compression, or chemical injection to reduce feeling in the nerve
If success with the above treatment options is limited, then motor cortex stimulation
(MCS) is sometimes used. This is where an electrode is placed over part of the brain
and is hooked to a pulse generator under the skin.
Success rates with all of these treatments are variable, and there are many instances
where these procedures may not improve symptoms and can cause loss of feeling or
abnormal sensations as side-effects to the treatments. There is also a risk of chemical
dependency with strong pain-relieving drugs.
The Pain Gate Theory suggests that our nerve pathways can only carry so much information
at once, and that increased activity in one set of neurons will lower that activity
in others. A simple example is that, if a nerve is transmitting the sensation of
heat or cold, it is less able to transmit pain in the same place at the same time.
It is on this theory that many complementary therapies are based.
Complementary Therapies for Pain
There are a range of complementary therapies which may help manage chronic pain.
Many people approach complementary therapies when they have exhausted conventional
treatment options and haven’t got the results they’d hoped for. However, looking
at complementary medicine concurrently, as complementary treatment rather than alternative
medicine, often gives the best results. Complementary therapies have become much
more mainstream in recent years, and some complementary therapies are now recommended
by GPs and other conventional healthcare professionals, and some are even available
on the NHS. Please see below for some general information on a variety of complementary
therapies which may be of use. Always discuss treatments with your GP or healthcare
provider prior to trying any new treatment.
Aromatherapy is the use of volatile oils distilled from plants known as ‘essential
oils’. These extracts are highly concentrated aromatic compounds containing a rich
variety of active natural ingredients. These oils are usually massaged onto the skin
or inhaled, although some can be taken internally. Aromatherapy is used for many
different conditions, from helping relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression
to easing congestion and relieving headaches. It is important to dilute essential
oils before skin contact, as they can cause reactions. 25 drops to 50ml of carrier
oil is the recommended dilution for adults, although this should be further diluted
for the elderly, pregnant women and children. Do not swallow essential oils or use
them on the eye or genital areas unless on the advice of a qualified aromatherapist.
Aromatherapy can be useful for pain management in several ways. The most general
is relaxation. If the body is relaxed, it can reduce pain perception. Using massage,
a warm bath, an oil burner, reed diffuser or even just oils on a handkerchief, the
following oils are good for relaxation: vanilla, lavender, rosewood, valerian, bergamot,
geranium, palmarosa, frankincense and chamomile. Our aromatherapy range and bath
range have products with these relaxing oils. For chronic muscular skeletal pain
and forms of neuralgia, the essential oils myrrh, rosemary, neroli, chamomile, cypress,
eucalyptus, ginger, clove and sandalwood can all be beneficial when topically applied.
In addition, oils can act both as counterirritants and warming agents to help reduce
muscular pain. These include ginger, clove, cypress, chamomile, rosemary, sandalwood,
myrrh, cedarwood, clary sage, marjoram, juniper, lavender and frankincense. Many
of these oils also have anti-inflammatory properties. However, the greatest essential
oil in the pain-relieving arsenal is arguably lavender. Lavender oil has been used
for centuries, and was used extensively in battlefield medicine in both World Wars
when medical supplies became scarce to prevent infection and as a pain reliever.
Yoga is a form of gentle exercise, but also known as a spiritual art. It was originally
developed as a way to develop spiritual and physical awareness, using a combination
of breathing exercises, meditation, physical postures/positions and visualisation.
Yoga is often used as a method of pain relief, particularly for pain which is a result
of muscular tension, including tension headaches, menstrual cramps and back/shoulder
pain. It is also frequently used to help relieve digestive problems. Used properly,
yoga can be a powerful tool in helping to improve mobility lost due to injury or
illness such as arthritis. It is gentle, and can have many additional benefits such
as relaxation and wellbeing improvements, improved circulation and suppleness and
reduced anxiety and stress.
Yoga should be practiced under supervision at first. There are classes in most towns
and cities in most countries for all ages and ability levels. People with chronic
pain conditions or illness/disabilities, especially those with heart or blood pressure
conditions, should consult their healthcare provider before starting any new exercise
regime, and should discuss their personal circumstances with their yoga instructor
prior to starting.
There are a wide range of styles of meditation, some linked to religious practice,
and some outside of a religious framework. Meditation can be used to calm the mind,
reduce anxiety and stress and (with regular practice) practitioners can even develop
the ability to transcend pain. Far from being a ‘quick fix’, it takes time develop
the techniques and to reap the benefits. However, the benefits are well documented.
Anyone can meditate but learning from an experienced teacher initially can be helpful.
Wikipedia has a very comprehensive article to introduce meditation. One form of
meditation is visualisation, which is effectively the use of the imagination to help
the body. The idea is to visualise a creative way of removing that which is causing
the problem. For example, someone suffering with a headache might picture wiping
away the pain and shining their head clear, or a beam of light removing the pain,
while a cancer patient might imagine healthy cells dressed as soldiers, attacking
cancer cells and destroying them, rebuilding them into healthy cells. The results
are, as you might imagine, varied. This seems to work best for people who are creative
and imaginative, which might explain why it tends to work better for children and
young people. This article explains a little more about visualisation.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice, which is linked to the traditional eastern
belief that the human body’s energy or chi flows along lines or meridians. Acupuncture
involves inserting very fine needles at various points on the body to stimulate the
flow of the energy. While many conventional medical practitioners do not accept the
theories behind acupuncture, research has shown benefits and is now offered on the
NHS in many parts of the UK, mainly for pain relief but also for the treatment of
addictions. The British Acupuncture Council has plenty of useful information.
Herbal medicine is one of the oldest medical traditions in most civilisations, as
well as the only effective form of medicine in the Western world until the 18th century.
It is still the most popular form of treatment in many countries around the World
today. There are many herbal treatments used for pain relief, often in the form of
tinctures, which are concentrated plant extracts in alcohol, or teas. Examples of
herbal remedies used for pain include ginger, liquorice, peppermint, calendula, chamomile
and parsley for stomach pain, colic, trapped wind and similar digestive disorders;
myrrh and clove for dental pain and sore throats (clove extract also makes a good
topical pain reliever) ; garlic and eucalyptus for respiratory pain; cramp bark,
feverfew and chamomile for period pains and aloe vera, clove and arnica for external
use on sprains and skin conditions. Herbal remedies are widely available for self-use
from health food shops, apothecaries or herbalist shops, and also alongside conventional
preparations in regular pharmacies. For more serious conditions, its best to consult
a qualified herbalist. Some herbs can be powerful drugs, and can be dangerous if
used incorrectly. This is particularly true if you are pregnant, are taking other
medication, or have underlying health conditions. The National Institute of Medical
Herbalists provides background information and a register of practitioners who are
members of the institute.
Bodywork Techniques & Manipulation
There are a wide range of practices which come under this umbrella, many of which
are becoming increasingly used in mainstream medical treatment. The most simple bodywork
technique is massage. There are lots of different styles of massage, including deep
tissue, Swedish and sports massage, and massage can be carried out by professional
therapists, or at home with a partner, friend or family member. Massage is used with
all ages, from babies to the elderly. There are plenty of ‘how to’ books, videos
and websites available to help people learn how to massage, and evening classes run
by local colleges are popular. Massage aids are also available, from simple wooden
devices to infra-red and vibrating gadgets. If you are massaging bare skin, a massage
oil will help the hands glide more easily across the skin.
More complex forms of bodywork include chiropractic (a technique which seeks to restore
health and balance through manipulation of the body, and particularly the spine),
osteopathy (a technique which also involves the manipulation of joints, muscles and
soft tissues), and numerous less common and less well-studied or tested practices
such as Rolfingand numerous other similar techniques. Chiropractic now enjoys inclusion
in the NHS in some parts of the UK. The most common form of bodywork, however, is
physiotherapy. This is available on the NHS in many circumstances, and was first
popularised by Hippocrates over 2000 years ago. It is now very much part of modern
conventional clinical practice.
Modern hydrotherapy was developed by the Austrian doctor Vincent Preissnitz in the
1800s. Hydrotherapy, as the name suggests, simply involves treating the sick using
water. This treatment may take the form of swimming, hot and cold baths, sitz baths,
saunas and steam rooms (or Turkish baths, as they are sometimes known), showers,
jet sprays, douches, and hot and cold compresses. If you’ve ever gone to a steam
room to ease a cold or respiratory problem, or taken a hot bath to ease muscle cramps,
or a cold shower to soothe sunburn, you’ve used hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy is gaining
in popularity with mainstream physiotherapists, and you will often find hydrotherapy
facilities in hospitals and clinics. Hydrotherapy has been shown to be very effective
in treating chronic muscular/skeletal pain, rheumatism and arthritic conditions and
pain from injuries. Taken to it’s most simple form, a hot bath can be a very effective
pain management tool, especially when combined with other therapies such as aromatherapy
in the form of bath products. Why not try some of our range?