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How to manage chronic pain naturally

Chronic pain is bad enough, but finding ways to manage it can be exhausting. If you’re battling pain every day, you may wonder if surgery, steroid injections or even opioids could make life easier.

But those options aren’t right for everyone, says Thomas Xu, M.D., a Piedmont physiatrist. Many of his patients have tried invasive treatments like surgery without success. And now that fewer physicians are prescribing opiates and opioids for pain, more people need alternative therapies. They come to Dr. Xu seeking new paths to pain-free living.

The importance of exercise

The answers are found in body mechanics, Dr. Xu says. Patients need accurate diagnoses for the underlying causes of pain.

“Things generally hurt for a reason,” he says, “and you won't have success in a treatment plan without finding that reason.”

Once people understand what needs treatment, they can often alleviate their problems with targeted strength exercises.

“I typically send patients to a good physical therapist to work on those mechanical issues,” Dr. Xu says.  

How to keep pain away

In addition to strength work, patients should focus on three core areas to reduce pain (and ensure it stays away):

  • Diet. Nutrition is important, and patients should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Sleep. Studies show that poor sleep hygiene affects chronic pain. Make sure you’re getting enough rest each night.
  • Weight. Though shedding pounds can be difficult, Dr. Xu acknowledges, a healthy weight will help you manage pain more effectively.

Mind-body connection

Practices like meditation and deep breathing promote a strong mind-body connection, which can benefit pain patients. Dr. Xu is also a proponent of cognitive behavioral therapy, a way of training the mind through new habits and thought patterns.

“It’s been proven to be very efficacious, in conjunction with medical treatment, in improving functionality in chronic pain,” he says.

For patients seeking more physical activities, Dr. Xu recommends yoga or Pilates, which strengthen the body’s core. People who need a lower-impact exercise can try aquatic therapy.

A healthier lifestyle

Dr. Xu is a proponent of surgery in the right circumstances, but he says the goal is to treat with the least invasive means that are clinically effective. Patients and their underlying pathologies are unique, he points out, so treatment plans should be tailored to each patient’s own circumstances.

The important thing to remember is that feeling better is often a result of a better lifestyle. Treatments like massage can provide temporary relief, Dr. Xu says, but they generally don’t address the root causes of pain.

“A lot of the solution to a pain problem is taking the onus upon yourself to do the right exercises that target the underlying mechanical issues contributing to pain on a regular basis,” Dr. Xu says. “The rest of it is a commitment to a healthier lifestyle."

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