Diabetes, heart disease and cancer affect tens of millions of Americans and are referred to as epidemics in our country. However, as a condition chronic pain affects more people than all three of the other diseases combined. With nearly 100 million Americans affected by chronic pain alone, the associated annual economic cost is staggering at an estimated $560-635 billion in 2010, according a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine of The National Academies. Affecting everything from ability to perform daily activities to sleep to overall quality of life, chronic pain often accompanies autoimmune conditions which are resistant to conventional pharmacotherapeutic interventions.

The statistics are bleak, but there is good news. Relief from—and even elimination of—chronic pain or illness is possible—with a limited need for medication or surgery in many cases. It requires expertise and experience with alternative natural solutions as well as persistence to find the right protocol for each individual.

“Our country is suffering from an epidemic of chronic pain and disease, such as type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity and some cancers—due to our stressful lifestyles, inactivity, poor diet and standard medical treatment aimed at covering up symptoms rather than removing the cause. But there are natural solutions that can help reverse many of these debilitating problems,” says Dr. Ed Markowitz, a chiropractor in Danbury who runs an integrated medical center with chiropractors, medical doctors, a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, a nutrition consultant and a personal trainer.

Traditional Western medicine, including surgery and medications, can help alleviate some of the symptoms but many drugs have side effects, stop working, or can cause dependence, says Markowitz, clinical director of Physical Health and Injury Center. “With the right treatment and tools, the human body can heal itself,” he explains. “At our center, we use a variety of treatments customized for each patient.”

Personal stories of pain and relief

At the Shalva Clinic in Westport, Dr. Andrew Cummins knows from personal experience how to treat and heal chronic pain. He began feeling the symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis when he was 18. The chronic inflammatory disease can result in extreme pain—especially of the spine—and can affect any organ of the body including the heart, lungs, eyes and gastrointestinal tract. He was first treated with steroids, painkillers and NSAIDs, but after about seven years, they stopped working and to increase the dosage might have affected his liver.

With that, Cummins searched for answers. He learned that he “didn’t understand” his body and found that “nothing happens in isolation.” There was a direct link between his pain and inflammation in his joints and gut. So if he eliminated inflammatory-creating foods, such as sugars, starches and grains, from his diet, he could starve the bacteria that thrived in his gut and caused the inflammation. His change of diet immediately showed results.

“I kept experimenting,” he says. “After I cut out the foods that were part of the cause of the inflammation, I began to experience less pain and more mobility. I was extremely motivated to keep moving. Constant movement is important with this condition.”

Cummins is no longer on prescription medication and has virtually no pain.

Then there is Khristee Rich, a Chakradance facilitator who has practices in Fairfield County and California. Chakradance is a free-form dance that balances chakras or vital energy pathways. Rich suddenly became ill in her 20s; she was later diagnosed with high levels of heavy metals, including mercury and lead, in her body. Her doctors said she should have suffered brain damage or been paralyzed because her levels were high.

Doctors prescribed weekly chelation therapy with colonics, enemas and vitamin replacements, she recalls. Chelation therapy is a chemical process in which a synthetic solution-EDTA (ethylenediaminetetracetic acid) is injected into the bloodstream to remove heavy metals and/or minerals from the body. It was painful, costly, and possibly had harmful side effects, so Rich set out to heal herself.

She found natural foods and supplements to naturally chelate to heavy metals, and then draw them out of her body. She meditated daily for 20 minutes, twice a day, and walked with her dogs. At the end of a month, her levels were down to zero. “My primary care doctor told me I would never get better. If people knew how powerful our minds are and how much we can do on our own to heal and repair our hearts, minds and spirits, people would be amazed,” Rich says. “I truly believe it was my positivity and how I trained my mind to believe I would be well that healed me.”

A mix of old and new techniques

“A lot of people are experiencing chronic pain, but they are only covering up the symptoms with conventional treatment,” Cummins explains. “The cause of the inflammation and pain is never addressed so the process and damage continues whether you feel it or not. This is why we see so many other issues arise. My goal is to take the body from a place of dysfunction and to restore normal function at the cellular level. Each individual is unique in their biochemical makeup and finding the right combination of foods, nutrients and exercise depends on their metabolism, specific deficiencies, digestion, absorption, history, environment and specific condition.”

When he starts working with patients, Cummins does a full assessment and uses lab tests depending on the patient and the specific condition. He might check for vitamin and mineral depletion, a detailed cardiovascular panel, heavy metals such as mercury, food sensitivities and gastrointestinal problems. “A lot of people with an autoimmune disease will have a vitamin D deficiency,” Cummins says. Vitamin D has an anti-inflammatory effect on cells and helps regulate the immune system and diminish auto-immune reactions.

Cummins analyzes stool samples of patients. “How is their digestive function? Do they have poor digestion?” he says. “Do they need pancreatic enzymes and probiotics, which can help reduce inflammation?”

Foundation training is another technique for chronic pain. It’s a series of 18 exercises that strengthen the muscles of the back and hips that support the spine and reduce inflammation and/or spasms, Cummins states. Patients typically do that three times a week for 30 minutes at the clinic and see results within a few weeks to a few months.

Cummins says damaged and dysfunctional mitochondria lead to inflammation. Mitochondria are often referred to as the powerhouses of our bodies’ cells; they generate the energy cells need to do their jobs. There are some micronutrients required for mitochondria to function correctly, to help control inflammation and pain—such as CoQ10, magnesium, D-ribose, alpha-lipoic acid, and the reduced form of CoQ10 ubiquinol.

The services at Markowitz’s center fuse some old techniques with new ones. These include acupuncture, rehabilitative exercise, nutritional counseling and manual therapy—such as chiropractic care and therapeutic massage, including the Graston technique, which erases scars and remnants of old injuries. Other services include trigger-point injections—which is fairly new to the field; medical doctors inject a natural plant-based, anti-inflammatory product into muscles, tendons or joints as an alternative to cortisone injections. Markowitz also uses decompression or inversion therapy to remove pressure on joints and nerves caused by arthritis and herniated discs.

The experts agree that healthy diet and nutrition are key to any course of therapy to treat pain. There will be variation in the optimal diet, however, as Cummins points out that every patient is different. For example, one patient might respond better to steaming vegetables over eating raw vegetables. But increasing certain vegetables, like cauliflower and dandelion greens, certainly help the liver, and juicing a combination of celery, spinach, chard, kale, cucumber, parsley and lemon help reduce inflammation and pain, Cummins says, because they are detoxifying foods.

The role of stress reduction

Stress—whether physical, chemical or mental—is a known cause of physical pain so any mindfulness techniques or modalities which reduce stress will also likely reduce pain. Meditation techniques such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and conscious breathing—as in yoga—are well documented to have an overall calming effect on overtaxed and over-stimulated body systems.

Some newer techniques in the United States include Vibrosaun—a heat/vibration therapy—have now also been shown in studies to reduce pain and problems associated with fibromyalgia and Lyme disease, among other conditions. Kure Spa in Norwalk offers one of the first Vibrosauns available in the United States; the machine was created in Australia and has been used for decades in Europe. “It looks like a NASA space bubble,” says Greg Lew, Kure Spa’s co-owner. A patient lies down on padded vibrating plates 30 to 45 minutes, with the head sticking out of the bubble. Motors inside generate vibration, which helps alleviate pain in those with musculoskeletal injuries, while the interior of the Vibrosaun heats to sauna-like temperatures. The heat relaxes tension while vibrations stimulate the lymphatic system, cleaning out cellular waste from the body. “I would say this is the best non-invasive treatment for people experiencing chronic pain,” Lew says.

Surrender to the Float in Guilford, iFloat in Westport and PuREST in Trumbull offer relief to pain sufferers in the form of floating— an hour suspended in a warm solution of water and Epsom salt so dense that patients float effortlessly. In the gravity-free environment, the body balances and heals internally as senses are rested. It is in effect a “reboot” for the entire nervous system, which is on perpetual high alert during chronic pain. Another modality long practiced in other countries around the world, but newer to the U.S., research shows floating reduces blood pressure and heart rate while lowering the amount of stress-related chemicals in the body. It helps with blood circulation and produces slower brain-waves patterns—known as theta waves—which can create creative thoughts and inspirations or feelings of peace and joy, induced by the release of endorphins.

A sample protocol

For Patrick Moore, a natural health educator, a part-time practitioner of naturopathy, and teacher of holistic nutrition to nurses at Yale-New Haven Hospital, three underlying conditions usually lurk in patients with chronic pain and autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Crohn’s disease. These three common factors are:

  1. A vitamin D deficiency, as Cummins mentioned.
  2. An infection that creates an inflammatory reaction, such as an inner bacterium that affects the gut, mouth or lungs. Probiotics are often recommended to bring more “good bacteria” to the gut and counter auto-immune reactions. One of his recent Health Buzz TV shows was titled The Microbiome: Probiotics and Lifespan (Youtube.com/watch?v=VrCry2XrpSk).
  1. An emotional auto-immune reaction, such as a traumatic or stressful experience. He quoted Deepak Chopra, saying “the immune system is always eavesdropping on your thoughts.”

When Moore began treating Mario Scrimenti of Ansonia—who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis—he started by boosting his immune system with nutritious supplements and foods mixed with smoothies. Moore used a method of giving high levels of nutrients, as developed by the late Dr. Linus Pauling, who also created the concept of orthomolecular therapy. “Some would find that scary, that it’s too much, but it really does work,” Moore says. “You want to get D level up quickly to a therapeutic level, and not wait over six months to a year to achieve that goal.”

Scrimenti’s smoothies included various minerals and supplements including MSM, which is an anti-inflammatory supplement; fish oil; aloe vera, which erases inflammation and diminishes joint and muscle pain; protein supplements, such as L-glutamine; chamomile; ginger; and black cherry concentrate, which is a powerful antioxidant. The combined smoothie ingredients helped to stabilize blood sugar in the body, which in itself is anti-inflammatory.

He tracked Scrimenti’s pain levels, his mobility and, of course, his energy and morale. “Cayenne is my favorite herb—it diminishes pain over time,” Moore says. In tincture form, he had Scrimenti take drops of cayenne in water several times a day, which helped enhance circulation and curb his pain. After six weeks, Scrimenti’s swelling and pain were practically gone. “Pain for Mario dropped from a high level of 10 to one,” Moore says. “You need to build confidence in the patient in a way that will optimize compliance using a natural-nutrient protocol.”

Cummins adds there is always hope. “I’ve been on this journey for 18 years; I’m on no prescription medications, and I’m in the least amount of pain as I’ve ever been,” Cummins says. “I love to look patients in the eye and say, ‘I understand. There is hope and you can make progress. Naturally.’ ”

Ed Markowitz of Danbury offers anyone who attends his lectures or reads Natural Awakenings magazine, a free consultation and evaluation. Call 203-798-WELL and/or visit the site at PhysiciansHealth.net.

Patrick Moore of New Haven will be a presenter at the upcoming A Modern Tea 2016 event, which will be held at the Omni Hotel in New Haven in April. Moore’s topic will be Medicinal Mushrooms and the Microbiome.

Angela Pascopella is a freelance writer and works full-time as managing editor at a national trade publication.