Making Pain Hurt Less

Making Pain Hurt Less

Pain is a four-letter word. Sometimes simply saying it hurts. Pain comes in many different manners: acute, chronic, primary, secondary, intermittent, progressive, debilitating, phantom, etc. Chronic pain reportedly impacts one-third of Americans, more than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. A top pain medicine, Vicodin, is the number one prescribed medicine in the US and it has doubled in usage in the past decade. While untreated pain may lead to increased severity and other complaints such as decreased sleep and immunity or reduced function and social interaction, the direct cost of pain in treatment and lost productivity is estimated at $600 billion dollars per year in America. This is comparable to the Defense Budget. We are waging a not-so-quiet War on Pain.

The treatment of pain itself is not without risk. Almost twenty thousand Americans die from improper use of prescription pain medicines each year. Another twenty thousand die each year from over-the-counter pain meds. This is more than those killed in automobile accidents, making the treatment of pain almost four times as deadly as AIDS. Although pain can be a challenging complaint in treatment, it is a vital symptom in identifying injury or disease so should never be simply ignored without adequate medical diagnosis. Once understood, however, the reduction of pain and suffering is typically the first objective of intervention and the most common reason individuals seek care.

Beyond pharmaceutical pain relievers, there are many natural methods that may provide comfort without the risk of adverse reactions. These include: magnesium and essential fatty acid supplementation; homeopathic remedies such as arnica and hypericum; essential oils of wintergreen, clove, and basil; physical interventions of acupuncture, bodywork, and bioenergetics; activities of walking, tai chi, and yoga.

Perhaps the most effective element of any pain relieving protocol is the human mind itself.  Hypnosis has been recognized as an effective pain relieving method for over a century, often providing relief for some of the most vexing pain problems such as bowel disturbances, joint and muscle discomfort, and a variety of nerve pains. Indeed, the precursor to hypnosis, mesmerism, was the first surgical anesthesia, and hypnosis is still used as an effective alternative to chemo-anesthesia.  The study of hypnosis in reducing discomfort and illuminating the mechanism of pain has led to many other mind-body methods, plus investigations of brain function in relationship to pain. These effects are produced not just by releasing calming and comforting chemistry such as endorphins and others within the body to block painful signals at the site, but by adjusting the manner of attention and interpretation within the brain. This helps to alleviate the secondary aspect of pain, emotional suffering.  It has been demonstrated that if the distressing implications of pain signals can be reduced, the reported pain level is lower.

This insight was revealed to me by my dear friend June, who had suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, a very challenging facial nerve pain. During a troubling bout that drove her toward delirium, she looked up to behold a photo of her grandson about to cross a frigid mountain stream barefoot. “You can do it Grandma” his voice echoed in her mind. With that her pain subsided, from a medicine across time and space.  She was very adamant in explaining the profound power of the moment and the enduring relief she received. Researchers now investigating this phenomenon have attributed this to the power of love and its effect on our thinking and thereby understanding of our experience.  This benefit is realized by both romantic love and loving, care-giving expressions toward others.  It redoubles our sense of self and bolsters our sense of capability, yielding super-human resilience.  Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning wrote that “he who has a strong enough why can endure any how.” Regarding suffering, applied purpose and motivation may, like a medicine, forge the pathway of greater relief.


Timothy L. Trujillo