Many of us have been taught that pain is always caused by a physical injury. And we think that we should try to eliminate it as quickly as possible using medication or surgery. While pain is frequently the result of physical trauma, in many situations pain can be the result of your brain becoming hypersensitive to certain stimuli (AKA primary pain or central sensitization). Rather than the conventional approach of masking the pain with medication, with this kind of pain it may be necessary to implement a holistic approach that incorporates alternative pain management techniques that target your neural pathways.
What is Holistic Pain Management?
Before we dive into an explanation of some of the most common alternative pain management methods, it’s important to understand what a holistic approach to pain management is and why it is an effective way to reduce and eliminate chronic pain.
An integrative or holistic approach to pain management looks at the big picture and examines all areas of one’s life. This “big picture” encompasses mental and emotional wellbeing, sleep habits, nutrition/diet, weight and stress management methods, and lifestyle in general.
Researchers have established that it’s best to think of the causes of pain as being biopsychosocial. In other words, chronic pain may originate in one’s body (bio), psychological state (psycho), and/or interactions with others (social). Invasive surgical procedures and potentially addictive drugs won’t uncover the root cause of the pain.
Top 5 Alternative Pain Management Techniques
Fortunately, there are many holistic treatments for chronic pain. So if you’re ready to try something different to manage and overcome your chronic pain, consider the following five alternative therapies for pain management.
Technique #1: Pain Reprocessing Therapy
In some cases, people experience recurrent pain because their brain has trouble processing pain signals properly. This is called centralized or neuroplastic pain, and if you identify with several of the following signs, you may be living with this highly treatable condition:
- You don’t have a physical injury.
- Stress frequently triggers your pain.
- The pain you feel varies in intensity and location.
- You tend to be hypervigilant and anxious.
- You had a traumatic childhood.
If you suffer from centralized pain, consider learning more about Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT). Developed by Alan Gordon, LCSW of the Pain Psychology Center, the purpose of Pain Reprocessing Therapy is to retrain the brain so that it learns how to correctly respond to signals from the body. It aims to change the way patients view pain and what causes it. During PRT sessions, you will be taught to follow several steps whenever you feel pain:
- Step back and view the pain in a non-judgmental and matter-of-fact way.
- Remind yourself that there is no bodily injury and send a message of safety to your brain.
- Generate positive emotions to create new brain associations.
Studies have found that people who struggle with chronic back pain benefit substantially from undergoing PRT. Many of them overcome the pain they experience indefinitely by establishing new neural pathways in the brain.
Technique #2: Pain Neuroscience Education
Another alternative for pain management is Pain Neuroscience Education (PNE), which shares some similarities with PRT above. Like Pain Reprocessing Therapy, Pain Neuroscience Education is a treatment intended for people who suffer from centralized or neuroplastic pain. (As a reminder, this type of pain occurs when the brain processes pain signals incorrectly.)
PNE is an educational approach that aims to recharacterize pain. It usually involves conversational interactions or teaching sessions between a clinician and their patient (sometimes in a group setting). Pictures, stories, analogies, and other teaching aids are used to teach the patient about their pain, the role their brain plays in it, and what to expect during their recovery. Other topics that PNE typically covers include:
- What causes inflammation
- The hypersensitivity of nerves
- How the brain processes pain
When someone doesn’t understand why they are in pain or how long it will last, they might limit how much they move (which can be detrimental to healing), establish unreasonable recovery expectations, and spend more money and time than needed on medications and medical visits. PNE has been found to reduce the fear that tends to correlate to pain, lessen dependency on highly addictive opioids, encourage compliance with doctor’s orders, and generate overall optimism.
Technique #3: Low-Dose Naltrexone
Naltrexone is an FDA-approved drug that has been used for several decades to treat opioid addiction. It is also given to inhibit alcohol cravings. When it comes to alternative pain control, it’s been recently discovered that lower doses of naltrexone reduce pain and produce anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating effects.
Low-dose naltrexone (LDN) has become popular as an off-label option for people dealing with chronic pain, particularly with conditions like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, diabetic neuropathy, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and complex regional pain syndrome. Beyond its ability to reduce pain, LDN also has several other benefits: it’s considered inexpensive and safe without any major side effects. In fact, one study found that 75% of the participants experienced no side effects at all when they took LDN.
So when you’re looking for a holistic treatment for pain, Low Dose Naltrexone is an affordable, low-risk alternative to opioids and other pain medicines. It’s been around for a long time and has a proven track record of helping people who struggle with chronic pain.
Technique #4: Psychologically-Informed Physical Therapy
Also known as PIPT, this holistic pain management technique combines regular physical therapy with psychological treatments like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). (Refer to this article for more information about the benefits of using physical therapy to treat pain.) As its name implies, Psychologically-Informed Physical Therapy allows clinicians to address structural issues that cause pain while also addressing relevant psychological factors as a part of the biopsychosocial model. Cognitive-behavioral methods like these are frequently incorporated into PIPT sessions:
- Relaxation training
- Coping skills
- Breathing techniques
Technique #5: Somatic Tracking
Somatic tracking is a central component of PRT. Its primary purpose is to teach patients to rewire their brain and reframe the pain they feel as they are experiencing it. This helps neutralize their fear of pain and deactivates the pain signal that the brain is accustomed to responding to. And as you become less fearful of pain, it starts to lose its power.
This type of psychological pain therapy is comprised of three different elements:
- Mindfully and unemotionally examining your pain
- Redefining the pain you feel as non-threatening
- Filling your mind with positive thoughts
If you experience chronic pain and prescription drugs and surgeries aren’t working for you, it may be time to think about approaching your pain management from a holistic perspective. Alternative pain management techniques like PRT, PNE, LDN, PIPT, (let’s see if you remember all those acronyms!) and somatic tracking can help you overcome centralized or neuroplastic pain. At Lin, we offer an all-in-one, holistic chronic pain management platform that you can easily access from wherever you’ve got an internet connection. When you sign up, you’ll be paired with a personal health coach who will use your pain history, past treatments, and symptoms to create a care plan specifically for you. Find out more today.