5 Ways to Decrease Pain Without Going to the Pharmacy

I'm not bragging, but the other day I felt like the Father of the year. Here's what happened: my sweet little (big) 4 year old jumped, fell down on her knee, and got up...saying "Owchie! I hurt me knee". 

Her very first reaction: "Daddy, what exercise can I do to help me with the pain?". No ice? No stretching? No fancypants painkilling lotion or medications? Nope...movement. Us physical therapists start 'em young. I couldn't have been more proud. She's only 4, and she gets it already. Naturally, I told her to give me some squats ...

Physical activity is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.
— Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC Director

Pain relief doesn't have to come in the shape of a pill. In fact, prescription medications are out of control. Opioids alone account for over 600,000 prescriptions dispensed PER DAY, even though 78 people die from opioid overdose in that same time frame. I don't bring this up to be gloomy, I just really feel strongly that medications shouldn't always be relied upon as a front-line defense for controlling pain.

There are far better, far safer, and frankly far more effective options out there, people. Many people just don't know this, so I wanted to lay out 5 of the best ways that you can decrease pain without going to the pharmacy:

(1) Educate yourself about what pain actually is and is not.

What we thought we knew about pain since arguably the beginning of humanity has been wrong. That's a big statement, so hear me out. A clear majority of sound research over the last 10-20 years now tells us that pain is entirely produced by the brain. 100%. Nowhere else. But I'm not saying you're (or we're) crazy, and I'm also not going to spend 5000 words explaining it. So here are a couple of fantastic explanations similar to how I educate my patients in the clinic. If you take away nothing else from today's article, please watch THESE 2 VIDEOS:

(2) Exercise

In healthy individuals, exercise is known to turn on switches in your body's chemistry that produce powerful analgesic (pain reducing) effects. Ever heard of "endorphins"? That is essentially an abbreviation for the term "endogenous morphine". Yes...morphine. Your nervous system has the capability of producing this and spreading that good feeling all over your body. Research is continually being conducted on this topic and should, over time, give us a better picture of the perfect amount or type that provides the best pain-killing vibes. For now, it's safe to say that exercise can play a huge role in decreasing pain. Start with something you're comfortable with- walking regularly, biking, a yoga video. Do it regularly, and take advantage of the pain-killing benefits of exercise and movement!

A good physical therapist can help you set up an exercise program tailored to your specific needs.

Resources for you: Review of Pain Killing Effects of Exercise, Pain Relief & Exercise, Preserving Strength While Decreasing Pain, Exercise Pain Relief & Blood Pressure

(3) Relax

The role that stress plays in the pain game is enormous, and those of you struggling with pain should pay special attention to this one. Stress can wreak havoc on most, if not all, of your body systems. Your body's response to stress can contribute to pain not only in your musculoskeletal system (think joints, muscles, bones), but also your esophagus, stomach, digestive tracts, and even reproductive regions.  Diaphragmatic breathing, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi, prayer...these practices all play an important role in reducing stress and are an excellent way for you to start getting control over stress.

And look...I get it. Meditation isn't for everyone. It might not be your thing. But the breathing technique & relaxation coaching is a fantastic place to start if you're looking to take the edge off of your stress today. Here's a great and quick 5-minute meditation guide to get you started:

Getting connected with a good psychologist can also be a very valuable step in helping you get a handle on stress management and breathing techniques.

Resources for you: Relaxation Techniques from Harvard,  American Psychological Association & Stress, Body In Mind

(4) Get Some Manual Therapy

Manual therapy, especially when you add exercise into the mix, can be an incredibly powerful tool for pain reduction. Some examples of manual therapy are: joint mobilization, spinal manipulation, manual muscle stretching, massage, trigger point therapies (accupressure, trigger point dry needling/functional dry needling), and instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (Graston, Edge Mobility System).

Calling up a good physical therapist is a great place to start to see if you could benefit from manual therapy. Many of my patients know that I frequently recommend good massage therapists in our area - as they might be able to provide you with a massage that could decrease stress and pain. 

While we don't yet fully know the exact reason some manual therapy techniques work, there is plenty of research to support a "hands-on" approach to reduce pain. Don't believe me? Low back pain & spinal manipulation, Manual Therapy & Knee Arthritis, Manual Therapy & Hip Arthritis, Manual Nerve & Tendon Glides for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Mechanisms for Manual Therapy.

(5) Set Goals

You can wander into debt, but you canโ€™t just wander out of debt.
— Dave Ramsey

I know Dave's words are about getting out of debt, but let me re-purpose it for the sake of this article. 

"You can wander into pain but [sometimes] you can't wander out". 

You might have a paper cut that you forget about that heals quickly without a second thought. You might have a bruise that you forget about after a minute or two. But chances are that if you've been struggling for quite some time with pain in your neck, lower back, knees, hips, etc. ... you have found that just sitting around without a plan isn't cutting it.

It's time to make a plan.

Find your why!

You know, as well as I do, that being intentional is one of the better ways to get things done. Your body, your health, your fitness, your athletic performance -- these are all things that have something in common. YOU are the only one that can change them. No one else. Want to have less pain in the next few months? Tell someone about it, get some people on your team, write it down, and come up with a game plan.

If you're dealing with pain and looking to skip the pharmacy, try some of these tips out. Better yet, try ALL of them! And as always, let me know what you think and if you have any other tips to add to the list!

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