Imagine having a backache. Now see if you can imagine that pain lasting more than 12 weeks. It may lessen on days, but it always comes back. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and pain relievers barely touch the pain, which prevents sleep, inhibits normal activities and makes life generally unbearable. This is the definition of chronic pain, and millions of Americans suffer from it.
Chronic pain is often linked to the ever-increasing opioid epidemic in the country. This is because millions of people get hooked on painkillers after an injury or surgery after they continue to medicate their continuing pain with prescription or even illegal drugs. Opioids are a class of drugs that interact with nerve cell receptors in the brain and often produce euphoric effects while relieving pain. Fortunately, addicting drugs aren’t the only answer for those seeking relief.
Some people with chronic pain—often stemming from backaches, headaches, TMJ, or joint or arthritis pain—seek pharmacological help only after trying to self-treat with over-the-counter medicines. They realize these medications aren’t good for their overall health, or become weary of the pain and look for stronger, better ways to treat the pain. They may visit their primary care physician who will prescribe an anti-inflammatory steroid or painkiller—or sometimes both—to help alleviate the pain. However, the pain will often return as the root cause of chronic pain has not been identified.
People who suffer from chronic pain often experience fatigue, depression and anxiety as well. In “How Pain Can Seriously Affect Your Brain”, an April 2016 post featured on PainPhysicians.com, Brenda Poppy ascertains that chronic pain can cause changes to the hippocampus; this is the part of the brain that regulates emotions and helps transform short-term memories into long-term knowledge.
In addition to the actual pain and its obvious effects, chronic pain is actually making people depressed, anxious and unable to remember. What can be done to stop it?
Identifying the root cause of chronic pain can provide lasting long-term relief. However, finding a physician that can help identify the basis of chronic pain is for many people a long, expensive journey. Health practitioners who specialize in chronic pain management must first determine the type of pain and then identify effective strategies to relieve and, hopefully, stop it.
Dr. David M. Brady, vice president of health sciences, director of the Human Nutrition Institute and associate professor of clinical sciences at the University of Bridgeport, explains that there are localized and global types of chronic pain. Localized chronic pain has a distinct beginning in a specific body part, such as a traumatic injury or surgery. Global pain is felt everywhere in the body. This is when the individual perceives elevated levels of pain for the simplest thing like light touch or the wind blowing. This is called allogdynia and is typically associated with central nervous system disorders like fibromyalgia.
Localized pain typically affects one part of the body, such as the head, jaw, lower back or joints. It often has a known cause, like an accident, injury, sciatica, or a disease such as cancer or arthritis. In the case of Dr. Andrew Cummins, his chronic pain stemmed from an inflammatory disease called ankylosing spondylitis, which affected his spine, hips and sternum and caused him severe daily pain. After seven years of living on prescription medication—like NSAIDs, steroids and painkillers—Cummins realized they could no longer relieve his pain. His rheumatologist was concerned about increasing his dosage for fear of damaging his liver. Cummins made a decision to heal himself.
He began experimenting with natural supplements, diet and exercise programs to relieve his pain permanently. In working to cure his own chronic pain, he discovered a calling to help others heal theirs and became a licensed naturopathic physician. He now practices at the Shalva Clinic in Westport, focusing his practice on helping heal chronic pain in his patients.
“I understand what it’s like to be in severe pain every moment of every day,” Cummins notes. “I am thrilled to be able to spread the news about how to heal through more natural ways, and get people off the pain medications.”
Cummins uses functional lab tests to identify the physiological cause of patient’s pain. His four tests assess different areas, including stress hormone levels, gut health, detoxification/energy product and levels of inflammation. Results from the lab tests guide the natural supplement and nutritional plan for healing. Cummins also teaches an exercise program called Foundation Training, which aims to strengthen the spine and hips to reduce inflammation. For himself, he has seen his treatments work as he has been free from prescription drugs for 10 years, and experiences much less pain.
In his practice at the Shalva Clinic, Cummins now custom creates a diet and exercise plan for his patients with a goal of weaning them off most pharmacological medications in six to 12 months.
When asked about the connection between physical and emotional pain, Cummins says there is a direct connection between psychological trauma and physical pain. This often manifests itself as the second type of chronic pain, global pain, such as that experienced with fibromyalgia. Unlike localized pain which is typically felt in the joints, fibromyalgia affects the muscles and connective tissues in the body so pain is felt everywhere.
Fibromyalgia is most common in women and is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, panic attacks, fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome. “There is a high statistical correlation between early trauma, abuse, instability and experiences that trigger the fight or flight response,” notes Brady. “It is when the nervous system is bathed in that situation at an early age, and later stress retriggers it, that people can develop fibromyalgia.”
Brady, who is also in private practice at Fairfield-based Whole Body Medicine, is a leading expert on fibromyalgia, and has written a book called Fibro-Fix, which helps sufferers understand the disorder and heal themselves through an integrative approach. “Fibromyalgia is deeply rooted in the central nervous system and past events,” says Brady. “Many people are told because a physician can’t find a physical source for the pain, that it is all in their heads. That’s true, but in a very different way.”
His integrative approach to healing the chronic pain involves talk therapy to help patients deal with the past as well as to learn stress management tools and cognitive behavioral therapy; these provide an outlet through prayer, meditation and gentle yoga, among other tools. Brady applies a systematic safe way for regaining movement and strength, which helps the nervous system.
These treatments are combined with a biomedical approach that includes a diet of healthy, whole foods and a reduction in sugar and inflammatory foods. It may also include a high dose of selective amino acids and adaptagenic calming herbs that take the edge off without causing a “zone out” feeling. The approach may also include sleep hygiene, which teaches patients to cut out electronics for the hours before bed, and switching to light bulbs that block blue light.
Whether chronic pain is localized or global, there are natural ways to heal the source of the pain and reduce the need for over-the-counter or prescription medications. It just takes getting to the right practitioner to identify the type of pain and create a pain management solution that works for the patient.