Hello dear friends!
It seems like everyone these days is dealing with some sort of pain: back aches, headaches, joint soreness, and muscle tension round out the top of a very long list. Most people know what it feels like to be down and out with a bad headache or have experienced the deep soreness that comes with viral infections. But for those of us with long-standing health issues, the day-in-day-out pain can be debilitating and downright exhausting. It can sap us of our energy (what little we have), drain our motivation, and make daily chores feel like climbing Everest.
It is estimated that 3.5% of the women (0.5% of men) in the U.S. live with fibromyalgia, and over a quarter of Americans deal with some kind of chronic pain (back pain accounts for nearly half of these cases, and is the #1 cause of disability claims) that affects their daily activities. Everybody that I know has some kind of stash of NSAIDs in their cabinets (ibuprofen is my favorite flavor), and a handful even have prescriptions for something stronger.
Pain is a serious problem and can be especially frustrating for people living with chronic illnesses that already take such big bites out of our lives. Having to deal with migraines, joint achiness, or even low-grade soreness on top of fatigue, insomnia, and brain fog? Sounds extra fun, doesn’t it? Yeah. No thank you.
Luckily there are several great options out there to manage pain in a safe, natural, and non-addictive way. Far better than simply popping pills (not that I’m judging- some days you gotta just do it), finding a well-rounded and holistic approach to pain relief can be such a hopeful boost- to feel able and confident rather than at the mercy of something (or someone) else can do wonders for your self-esteem and independence.
So without further ado, here are my top 7 natural pain relief strategies:
1. Change up your diet
Yes, I’m sure you saw this one coming, didn’t you? Most of us know by now that what we eat has far-reaching effects and we feel them way down into the deepest corners of our bodies. Things like refined sugars/flours, alcohol, dairy, and gluten (and many more, depending on things like allergies or autoimmune issues) can create a state of inflammation in your body and exacerbate your pain levels. Whether it’s low-grade background crankiness or an acutely angry response, our bodies can be sensitive to our dietary choices, especially when we’re on a “downswing” or flare up. For me, I’ve noticed that large amounts of refined sugars give me an almost immediate headache and a very uncomfortable flushed/hot/dizzy feeling. It took me a while to realize this, but once I put the two together I could pinpoint the kinds of foods that were likely to be “not worth it in the end”. Knowing your trigger foods is a great idea to stave off future pain.
If you’re dealing with a particularly bad pain day, resist the urge to drown it in cupcakes! Reach for a glass of fresh, cold water first, and fill your day with as many veggies as possible. Cooling foods (based on both Ayurveda and TCM) like cucumbers, mint, hibiscus, melon, leafy greens, cauliflower, coconut, and fresh berries can help fill you up without aggravating the heat of pain. And no, a kale salad probably won’t clear up your back pain by itself, but by nourishing our bodies with the right foods, we can create space to lower inflammation and promote healing.
2. Utilize the right herbs and spices
For centuries, humans across the globe have been using plants to manage their physical ills, and we are just now starting to understand the biochemistry behind these magical ingredients. Here is just a short list of easily accessible power plants for pain relief:
- Curcumin- this kick-butt chemical is the main component of the spice turmeric, and has already been shown to reduce inflammation, slow aging, and help manage systemic pain. Commonly used in capsule form.
- Capsaicin- derived from hot peppers, this is the ingredient that gives them their “kick” and can be amazing for topical and targeted pain relief. Look for creams or balms with this extract.
- Ginger- not just to soothe an angry stomach, ginger has been shown to tamp down pain both in and outside of the GI tract. It seems to work well on joint pain and can be taken in fresh or capsule form (or drank as tea!).
- Birch leaf and white willow bark- both of these tree-powered compounds are chemically similar to OTC pain relievers (cortisone and aspirin to be specific) and can be helpful for people struggling with arthritis and musculoskeletal pain. Usually found in creams and in pill form.
- Arnica- a flower compound with significant pain and swelling busting effects. Great for sports injuries or post-surgery, and comes in pills and creams/gels.
3. Bust out the essential oils
Yep-they’re not just to make your house smell pretty! Essential oils have the power to heal, calm, and relieve pain, especially when used in tandem with something else on this list. Most of these are fantastic straight out of the bottle, but are also just as lovely mixed with other oils or whipped into a balm. Here’s what’s in my pain-busting oil cabinet:
All of these oils have cooling and invigorating properties- wintergreen and peppermint especially can offer immediate comfort and wake you up a bit too! Except for wintergreen, which must be diluted first (use a carrier oil like jojoba or sweet almond), you can rub a few drops directly into those sore spots, or treat yourself to a little scalp massage. You can also drop them into a warm bubble bath, use them in a diffuser, or mix them all into a lotion or cream, for all-natural good-smelling pain management.
4. Take in some minerals
Our muscles rely on the proper balance of minerals and electrolytes to function properly, heal from injury, and manage the perfect ratio of relaxation/tension. Sadly, many of us may not get all the minerals and vitamins we need to fully nourish our musculoskeletal system, which may result is soreness or make us quicker to fatigue. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, and manganese are some of the top things that can cause discomfort when out of whack. Many people suffer from regular muscle spasms, tightening, and deep knots- much of which can be explained (at least partially) by a mineral imbalance. These people may find great relief in adding rich minerals to their self-care routine, and here are a few ways you can try it out too!
- Soak in a mineral bath- there are lots of different salts and solutions available in your local health foods store, many of which are combined with essential oils, arnica, and other healing ingredients.
- Take supplements- calcium and magnesium are especially easy to find and are relatively cheap. These both have been shown to improve fatigue, overall soreness, PMS and menstrual cramps, restless leg syndrome, and more. There are also many mineral complex supplements that are great for arthritis and fibro.
- Rub in some topical oil- one of the best things I use on a regular basis is this magnesium oil. I spray a bit on wherever I’m the most sore right before I go to bed (magnesium has relaxing properties as well) and feel like it has helped. This is especially great for overuse/sports injuries or muscle strain.
5. Adjust your ergonomics
Many people are chained to an uncomfortable office chair 40 hours per week, and some of the rest of us spend an awful lot of time on the couch or in our beds, especially when we’re feeling especially run down. I can attest- there is a big indent in the middle of my couch where I plant myself on a regular basis and where I do a lot of my work! And boy, does my body feels it if I sit there too long: my back is rounded, my hips are tightened, my shoulders are slightly forward, and my neck is curved. If you are like me, and do a lot of your living from a sitting or lying down position, it’s worth the time and effort to adjust some of your ergonomics!
If you can’t afford a new chair or couch, use pillows, bolsters, and other props to adjust your body into a healthier position, particularly if you’re settling in for a while. Make sure your spine is supported and maintains its natural S-curve. Give your shoulders and neck space to move and avoid crunching them up or hunching over (you can try a small bolster or rolled up towel vertically along the spine or even well-placed kinesiotape). Place your computer/book/TV in a space that doesn’t require your neck to strain for a good view, and of course- take frequent breaks and stretch.
Now, there are absolutely mixed reviews on acupuncture’s benefits for complicated issues like ME/CFS or autoimmune diseases, but if there’s one thing that it totally rocks at, it’s relieving pain. No matter what kind of pain you have, the boost from this ancient treatment is enough to offer almost immediate relief, and if you continue regular treatments, you’ll be pleased to see an overall lessening of pain’s intensity and frequency over time. It is especially great at treating arthritis, post-op pain, headaches, menstrual cramps, and back pain.
One of the best parts is that acupuncture is widely practiced all over the world and new clinics are popping up daily. Over half of insurance companies now cover acupuncture treatments, and many cities have community-based programs to keep the costs low and reach even more patients. Go ahead a seek out a clinic near you and see how much better you can feel!
Just in the last few years, meditation has been a hot subject for research the world over, and the findings just keep on getting better. People who meditate even just 10 minutes per day are showing to have less depression, better sleep, and much less pain. Using mindfulness-based relaxation techniques can be extremely beneficial in re-wiring your brain’s pain signal pathways and re-writing your emotional responses to physical discomfort. While basic guided meditations on breath/attention are a wonderful addition to your healing toolbox, there are dozens of fantastic meditations solely for pain.
- Search the iTunes store for “meditations for pain” and sample the offerings until you find one that speaks to you
- Headspace has several single meditations, and an entire meditation pack devoted to pain
- The Meditation Oasis podcast has several episodes directed at relieving pain and promoting healing
- If you’re really struggling, and have some time to devote, there are also apps and guides for hypnosis (basically a very deep meditation) to help with pain- search iTunes or Google to find and download them
Hopefully one or more of these 7 things can make a difference for you in easing your discomfort. For me, although pain isn’t at the very top of my symptom list, all of these options have provided relief at some point and I still employ most of them regularly. Chronic and debilitating pain can be such an incredible bummer, especially if you feel like you’re fighting to just make it through the day.
And an important note- even the most powerful drug or essential oil or meditation technique can only do so much if you feel like you’re all alone in your struggles. Reaching out to a friend, caregiver, online support group, or even this blog can help you feel connected, supported, and encouraged in your healing journey. Remember, you’re not doing this alone! We’re all here with you.
And as always...
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~