How integrative holistic therapies help patients manage chronic pain

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In the US alone, around 50 million adults are living with chronic pain of some kind. As well as harming their mental health, it can limit their ability to carry out daily activities and have a significant impact on their quality of life. To avoid dependence on pharmaceutical remedies, clinicians and patients have increasingly been turning to integrative medicine. This term refers to medical care that includes conventional treatments but uses them alongside one or more forms of safe complementary therapy.

In some cultures, therapies such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture have been considered healthy living practices for centuries, but in recent years, their effectiveness when it comes to pain relief has been confirmed through scientific studies. In fact, according to one such piece of research, patients experienced a “significant reduction in chronic pain when using alternative approaches”. 

Sometimes referred to as complementary medicine, these therapies are not intended to replace the use of traditional treatments dispensed by the US healthcare system. Instead, they can form part of the chronic pain management plan that is designed by the healthcare team around a patient. As with all forms of complementary therapy, the focus is very much on the patient’s feelings and preferences. The aim is to treat the whole person – not just the cause of their pain, but their spiritual and mental wellbeing as well. 

Alleviating mental health problems and physical pain

As well as treating patients experiencing problems with their physical health, integrative medicine may help people manage a range of mental health conditions. Stress, anxiety, and depression can often occur as a result of chronic pain, so it makes sense for medical professionals to consider both in their treatment plan. Registered nurses who want to practice in advanced mental health and qualify while they are working, can take an online DNP-PMHNP program at Baylor University. This program prepares nurses for roles in the senior levels of healthcare through a combination of coursework, clinical placement, and competency development. 

There are many forms of integrative holistic therapy. To choose the best one, patients must consult with their medical team and consider their own preferences. Here is a closer look at four of the most popular forms of complementary medicine. 

Ease muscle tension with acupressure

Acupressure is thought to have benefits for people with fibromyalgia or pain in their lower back. During a session, the practitioner will use their hands, fingers, and elbows, along with specially developed tools to gently apply pressure to certain points (the acupoints) in the body. Many sessions will also involve an element of stretching and massage, to relax the body and mind. Acupressure is an ancient Chinese medicine, and traditionally the acupoints were thought to align with the body’s meridians. These energy fields were believed to be balanced during treatment and energy was transferred between the practitioner and the patient. Today, the beneficial results of acupressure are attributed to more concrete factors such as the release of pain-killing endorphins, lowering muscle tension, and boosting circulation. 

Stimulate the body through acupuncture

Described as an “efficacious strategy for acute pain” in a recent study, acupuncture is believed to offer relief for people who experience osteoarthritis, headaches, and anxiety, and other symptoms. The treatment involves very thin sterile needles being placed into the skin at certain points on the body. This may sound extreme, but it causes very little discomfort or pain in practice. Instead, the idea is to signal the presence of a stimulus, which creates a response in the body. The needles are placed in areas that are packed with nerve endings, such as the back, ears, and feet. In traditional Chinese medicine, triggering these strategic points was thought to balance a person’s life force, by allowing for the free flow of energy along meridians or pathways within their body. Today, it is thought that the needles stimulate the skin, muscles, and nerves to produce a pain response, and increase circulation, all of which can have a soothing effect. 

Relax and unwind with massage therapy 

Therapeutic massages can be useful in managing pain, recovering from injuries, and dealing with stress. They can help people who are living with chronic back pain, shoulder pain, and headaches. During a massage, the patient will usually lay face down on a table and the therapist will apply pressure using their hands and fingers to various parts of the body. The amount of pressure they use will depend on the individual patient and the form of massage being used. Muscle stimulation can help reduce stiffness and give people more freedom of movement, but for many, massaging simply feels good. The practitioner will often play soothing music, and this can heighten the feeling of calm a person experiences. 

Flexibility and strength through yoga

Yoga has several health benefits which are supported by scientific research. Like many holistic approaches to healing, it aims to treat the whole body. Specifically, it can help to relieve forms of inflammation that can cause chronic pain, it also lowers stress levels and builds strength. It is one of the few complementary medicines which can be enjoyed with a group of people, and for some, the social aspect of yoga is an additional perk. In a session, the instructor leads the group through various physical poses, but occasionally mantras and periods of meditation can be incorporated. The stretching and balancing involved in yoga boosts flexibility, improves posture, and relieves tension, all of which can be useful in lessening pain.

A growing trend in US healthcare 

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, care settings across the country are expanding their “use of integrative approaches to health and wellness.” Bringing together these different therapies allows practitioners to move away from simply treating individual conditions and allows them to concentrate on the recovery of the whole person.

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