When it comes to chronic issues, pain is not only one of the most common — for example, headaches and back pain are the two biggest reasons people miss work — but it’s also one of the most problematic when it comes to health outcomes, says Dr. Steve Yoon, physiatrist and director of The Regenerative Sports and Joint Clinic at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
“Pain can have a ripple effect that impacts other aspects of your life,” he says. “For example, you might be more sedentary because activity is painful. That can cause weight gain, poor sleep, more stress, and other problems. And each of those comes with its own set of challenges.”
Whether you experience frequent muscular pain or it’s a short-term issue, here are some medication-free strategies to consider.
1. YOGA AND TAI CHI
Mindful movement practices like yoga and tai chi are often recommended for pain, but do they really help? Turns out, they may be even more effective at handling pain than medication, since they can lower pain-related distress as well.
Researchers recently found yoga, in particular, showed longer-term reductions in low back pain, while tai chi reduced acute low-back pain for men in their 20s. For both men and women in a larger age range, tai chi was also effective for lowering pain intensity and pain-related disability.
These practices are beneficial for other types of pain as well, according to a study that found yoga can ease pain from carpal tunnel syndrome, and some research has associated a yoga practice with lower pain amounts after cancer treatment.
Pursuing work that feels meaningful can be valuable for your emotional health, and it can also reduce your pain as well. A recent study focusing on stress in the workplace found those who felt less control in their jobs and little social support at work had more pain.
“Regular stretching and physical activity can be useful,” says study co-author Gabriele Buruck, PhD, of the Technische Universität Dresden, Germany. “But if you’re not taking work factors into consideration, then you may not be addressing a major reason you’re experiencing pain.”
Although acupuncture has been used in many countries for quite a while to treat pain, it has been regarded with some suspicion in the U.S. and even seen as controversial, a recent studynoted. However, research is increasingly suggesting it should be a mainstream option.
In the research, which covered more than 20,000 patients from 39 trials, acupuncture was found to be very effective for treating pain, especially the chronic type that can affect people on a regular basis. Those in the studies also found the relief from acupuncture continued over time, making it an effective long-term treatment.
4. NUTRITION CHANGES
Can you eat your way out of chronic pain? To some degree, yes, because if you’re eating foods known to cause inflammation — highly processed food, sugar, sweetened drinks and trans fats — that could contribute to an inflammatory response that increases the pain response.
Although some degree of inflammation is healthy, too much can become a problem, notes Jill Grunewald, a functional nutrition coach and co-author of “The Essential Thyroid Cookbook.”
Fortunately, there are numerous foods that can lower inflammation levels throughout your system, providing benefits not just for your back muscles and joints, but also your thyroid, immune system and digestion. She suggests choices like nuts, tart cherries, dark leafy greens like kale and fatty fish such as salmon. Also try turmeric and ginger, two spices that are particularly high in anti-inflammation compounds.
When you’re carrying extra weight, especially around your midsection, that can pull your pelvis forward and cause strain on your back muscles as well as spine and joints. As your discs compensate for the pressure, they may herniate as a result.
There’s also a strong association with pain throughout the body from excess weight, according to research that notes the most common types of pain are migraine, fibromyalgia, tension headaches and abdominal pain, as well as back issues.
Losing weight can have a significant impact on issues like these, says Yoon, especially losing the “spare tire” that is causing your posture and gait to be out of alignment. Even just a few pounds can sometimes make a big difference, he says. And if you’re losing weight through healthy eating — always a good idea — it’s likely you’re lowering inflammation as well, which is a bonus for reducing pain levels.
6. TALK WITH YOUR DOCTOR
Therapies like the ones here can be helpful, but if you’ve tried approaches like these and you’re still feeling miserable, Yoon suggests making an appointment to talk with your doctor.
Sometimes, prescription pain medication is the best treatment, especially on a short-term basis. But it’s up to you and your doctor to discuss the type of meds, timeframe for being on them, and any additional treatments like surgery that should be considered, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“The most important thing when it comes to pain is how it’s affecting your quality of life, not just your body,” says Yoon. “You have to see treatment as an ongoing, likely multi-faceted strategy that’s not just about lowering your pain, but also about getting you more mobile, and all the benefits that come along with that.”