Seven Things You Should Know About Pain

This article originally appeared in About Face Magazine, Issue 07

Treating pain is one my specialties. I don’t prescribe pain drugs and I don’t accept insurance. People pay me cash out of their pockets, which means I have to get the job done well and fast or they won’t come back. I want whatever is going to knock down the pain, resolve the underlying cause, and support the patient’s overall wellness. Working this way has forced me to discern what really works best and to scrap the rest. Of the handful of approaches I feel are most valuable, only a few are things I can employ in the clinic. The rest are entirely up to the patient, and they’re things everyone should know. Following are seven of the most important ones.

1. My starting point is a fundamental principle of Chinese Medicine: All pain is caused by stagnation. Stay with me; it’s a little bit out there, but knowing this could change your life. When things move freely we feel good, and when they don’t we feel bad. If we overeat and food is stagnant in our digestive tract, we feel uncomfortable. If blood stops moving through the vessels in our heart, it really hurts. If our muscles are irritated and taut (stagnation), there’s pain. If our joints are damaged and inflamed (stagnation again) they hurt. If we broke up with someone but we keep fantasizing about them or replaying our conversations, this is mental and emotional stagnation, and it hurts. If we’re attached to life being a certain way, it’s not that way, we don’t let it go, and we feel bad… guess why.

So, the restoration of flow is my focus, no matter what kind of pain a person is in. Now, here are three important sub-principles. First, all of our many parts are interconnected, so stagnation on one level can readily lead to stagnation on another level. Two examples: If we’re chronically angry, tense, or sad (emotional stagnation) this can eventually show up as, say, a tension headache or lower back pain (physical stagnation). Vice versa, living in a tight and inflexible body (physical stagnation) can contribute to a lack of mental flexibility – rigid thinking, frustration, depression, etc.

Second, clearing stagnation on any level tends to promote flow on all levels. For instance, physical exercise is beneficial for depression, because moving the body moves the mind. Likewise, using the mind to imagine energy and blood coursing freely through a painful area of the body can often be as effective as painkillers. For the same reason, if we’re in physical pain, it is always worthwhile to look inward and see if there’s some belief or emotion we need to let go of.

Third, you can’t argue with reality. Resistance produces stagnation. So, resisting pain doesn’t help. Acceptance does. Accept your pain (and everything else) and let it go.

2. Qi follows the breath. Another principle of Chinese Medicine. Qi (“chee”), our vital energy, is mobilized by breathing. The yogic tradition of India, which refers to this energy as prana rather than Qi, teaches the same thing. Shallow breathing supports a less-than-vital body and mind. Deep, full breathing makes us feel more alive and helps us let go. In the context of pain, imagining that you’re breathing through a painful body part (or a painful thought, emotion, or experience) can work wonders.

3. Hydrate. Water is vital to good flow in the human body. If you’re in any kind of pain, one of the first things you should try is increasing your water consumption. And don’t forget the electrolytes. Magnesium, in particular, is a great muscle relaxant and helps many kinds of pain. Try 250 milligrams two or three times a day (take less if it loosens your bowels).

4. Get massage. Massage is hugely undervalued in the United States. Perhaps because of our puritanical origins, we tend to believe that things that feel good are (1) an indulgence and (2) not good for us. The reality is that the great majority of pain is benefited by massage, which is a more impressive claim than can be made of nearly any conventional pain therapy.

5. Get acupuncture. Unless you count drugs (which, to me, aren’t a sustainable therapy due to their toxicity, other side effects, and inability to produce a lasting benefit), acupuncture is the single most effective therapy for the broadest range of pain. You could say I’m biased since I often use acupuncture on my patients, but I’m biased toward everything in this list – I chose it because it works.

6. Treat your day like an all-day workout. You probably wouldn’t work out one muscle group at the gym for eight hours straight – and if you did, you’d stretch before and after, you’d drink a ton of water, you’d take frequent breaks and move around. But the ways we work – sitting all day at a desk, kneeling in the garden, repeating the same motions over and over, tilting our head to one side to cradle the phone between our ear and shoulder, holding a steering wheel for hundreds of miles – often involve using the same muscles for hours on end, and cause significant postural stress. It creeps up slowly, so we don’t always know how it started, but most of our pain comes from our everyday activities. Stretch frequently, take breaks, drink water, evaluate your posture and the ergonomics of your work environment.

7. Clean up your diet. The role of nutrition in pain is a big topic, so the nutshell version is this: If you’re in pain, cut way down on sugars, grains, dairy, fatty meat and junk food. These tend to provoke inflammation. Eat more vegetables, oily fish or fish oil, and plenty of spices. These tend to alleviate inflammation.

Remember, pain is part of life. When you can’t seem to get away from it, here are two final suggestions. Practice gratitude – although pain can seem to eclipse everything that’s good about life, there are always things to be grateful for. And focus on others – find ways to be of service to people and the planet; when you’re serving the world, your pain has a way of shrinking into the background.