Integrative Approaches to Pain Relief

March 15, 2019

Clinical Contributors to this Story

David C. Leopold, M.D. contributes to topics such as Integrative Health and Medicine.

Everyone’s experience of pain is slightly different, but one thing is true: We can all measure our intensity of pain along a scale that runs from mildly annoying to debilitating. Clini­cians from the Hackensack Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine program can work with you to help manage pain and take control of your health using natural, time-tested techniques. “We want people to know they have options. It’s confining to think you can only take a pill to address pain,” says David Leopold, M.D., the corporate medical director of Integrative Health & Medicine. “You can use a number of methods—along with medication as needed—to actually decrease pain and improve function so you can improve your quality of life.”

The integrative medicine spe­cialists offer patients options grounded in evidence-based science, such as acupunc­ture and massage therapy, that activate the body’s own pain-relief mechanisms.

You can also employ some techniques on your own, including breathing exer­cises, meditation and guided imagery. Lifestyle changes in nutrition, physical exercise and sleep hygiene support these and other pain-relieving efforts. For example, exercise can produce endorphins, which can act as the body’s natural painkillers. Certain types of diets can lessen pain, such as anti-inflammatory diets or a gluten-free diet.

“The constant stresses of life, which our minds perceive as threats, initiate the fight-or-flight response and that, in turn, amplifies pain,” Dr. Leopold says. “Meditation is a way of trying to put the mind in a calm state and decrease the ‘noise’ of everyday life so the brain can settle down. And there is extensive evidence that exercise boosts endorphins, creating a better state of balance between fight-or-flight and an unstressed state.”

Just as a person might have to try different pain-relief medications to find the one that works best, the same approach applies to integrative medicine techniques. “There is no right or wrong, but we might have to look around to find one that resonates with a particular person,” Dr. Leopold says.

In addition, these tech­niques work in combination with pharmacological treat­ments. “It’s OK to use medications for a short period of time,” he says. “But use integrative medicine techniques as well to lessen the amount or duration of painkillers.”

What Is Guided Imagery?

Guided imagery involves a person keeping an image of something pleasant and calm in their mind, enabling them to relax. If you’re in the hospital, you can do this with the assis­tance of an integrative health nurse at the bedside, who can recite passages to keep the mind engaged, or you can do your own visualization. “These actions activate the parasympa­thetic nervous system,” explains Dr. Leopold, “leading to a decrease in the inflammatory response, a decrease in cortisol [a stress hormone] and an increase in oxytocin [a ‘feel-good’ hormone]. The reactions speed healing and lessen pain.”

Take steps to relax, lower stress and heal. Download our free Relax and Let Healing Begin audio series.