When most people think of pain, it’s in the context of wanting it gone — pain, obviously, hurts, and sometimes there is a reason for that. It can alert you that something is wrong — if you’ve pulled a muscle or you have an infection, or you have an abrasion or broken bone you need to take care of. But, for many of us, that original pain can stick around long past its usefulness. Once we know we have a problem, it’s preferable to fix it without being disabled by the adjoining pain.
Most people immediately reach for anti-inflammatory meds, or even consider surgeries or other medical procedures to help alleviate the pain. Before going there, however, there are natural tricks you can use to mitigate and relieve your pain.
1. Cold and Heat Therapy
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Remember spraining your ankle in gym class or out on the field in high school? Bumping your head or hitting your funny bone in middle school? Those crack-and-shake ice packs came out every time.
Using ice packs helps numb the pain in two ways: first, it reduces swelling, which is your body’s response to trauma, but which can also hinder healing. It also slows your nerve impulses, which slows the pain messages going from the affected area to your brain. Recommended ice therapy lasts for only 15 minutes at a time, with a 2-hour rest between applications.
On the other hand, you want to use heat for sore muscles, stiffness, arthritis and muscle spasms. You can use a heating pad or you can submerge the affected area into warm water.
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It may seem counter-intuitive, but moving around can actually interrupt the cycle of pain and one way to increase the mobility the pain has reduced is by gently exercising the area, such as walking, cycling or swimming. This is particularly true for chronic pain conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Endorphins exist in your body, and they are natural painkillers. Exercises release those endorphins which bind to the opioid receptors helping to block the perception of pain.
3. Mindfulness Techniques
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Keeping your mind and body connected on all levels can be done through meditation, yoga, physical therapy or occupational therapy. Breathing techniques won’t take away all the pain, but they can help alleviate the more traumatic feelings of that pain by grounding you and restoring a sense of control over your own body that pain can take away. You can take it one step further with the guided therapies which improve mobility and strength, and allow you to find techniques to perform your daily activities without activating your pain sensors. Yoga incorporates breathing exercises and stretching into a relaxation ritual that can help alleviate low back pain and neck pain.
Studies show that mindful meditation can improve pain symptoms, depression and overall quality of life.
While acupuncture is an eastern method, studies have shown that the ancient Chinese practice of placing tiny needles into your skin can reduce pain by causing the body to release serotonin. Research says that acupuncture can help with low back pain, neck pain, and knee pain. In addition, tension headaches can dissipate, and one study showed that the practice helped manage chronic pain, amid hundreds of other conditions.
While known for its self-care properties, a proper massage can ease pain by working out tension being held by the muscles and joints. It also relieves stress and anxiety. The manipulation of soft tissues, including muscles, tendons and ligaments increases blood flow and reduces overall tension.
6. Herbal Remedies
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Herbal remedies for pain have been around since herbs have been around, and yet they have not been thoroughly studied. Keep in mind that herbs are not necessarily benign, and these therapies are not regulated by any government body.
The list of herbs that can be used for pain relief is long, but each has its own purpose. Capsaicin, for instance, depletes a compound that transfers the sensation of pain from the peripheral to the central nervous system. Ginger has phytochemicals that help reduce inflammation. Feverfew treats headaches, stomach aches and toothaches, but studies are needed to prove its actual effectiveness. KavaKava is boiled in a tea for tension headaches; ginseng is said to thwart symptoms of fibromyalgia; St. John’s Wort may be effective in treating pain related to sciatica, arthritis and neuropathic pain.
Turmeric contains curcumin, which helps protect the body from free radicals damaging the body’s cells. It treats indigestion, ulcers, psoriasis, and even cancer. Cloves, meanwhile, treat topical pain and even fungal infections, though more research is needed. This is because a main ingredient in cloves is eugenol, which is a natural pain reliever, particularly in dental work.
So, before you spend time at the doctor, or sign up for medical treatments that can be expensive and time-consuming, try some of these home techniques. These techniques may offer an alternative to those looking to manage pain with fewer side effects than traditional pain mitigation from medication.
Keep in mind, they may not be as effective as the traditional methods, particularly with more severe pain, or pain that comes from specific, intense conditions. Do not take these remedies as a replacement for medical care, and always ask a doctor if you experience new pain.
Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and a professor at the University of Florida, with degrees in communications and ecology.