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Pain management: Complementary therapy

Complementary or alternative therapy encompasses a variety of disciplines including acupuncture, guided imagery, chiropractic treatment, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback, aromatherapy, relaxation, massage and many others.

In the past decade, strong evidence has accumulated on the benefits of mind-body therapies and acupuncture. Other alternative therapies, such as massage, chiropractic treatments, therapeutic touch and dietary approaches have the potential to alleviate pain in some cases. However, the evidence supporting these therapies is less concrete.

Mind-body therapies

Mind-body therapies are meant to enhance the mind’s ability to affect the functions and symptoms of the body. Mind-body therapies use various approaches including relaxation techniques, meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback and hypnosis. 

Visualisation may be another worthwhile pain-control technique. Try the following exercise: Close your eyes and try to summon up a visual image of the pain, giving it shape, colour, size and motion. Now try slowly altering this image, replacing it with a more harmonious, pleasing - and smaller - image.

Another approach is to keep a diary of your pain episodes and the causative and corrective factors associated with them. Review your diary regularly to explore avenues of possible change. Strive to view pain as part of your life, not all of it.

Hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis may help you block or transform pain through refocusing techniques.

One self-hypnosis strategy, known as glove anaesthesia, involves putting yourself in a trance, placing a hand over the painful area, imagining the hand is relaxed, heavy and numb, then envisaging these sensations replacing other, painful feelings in the affected area.

Relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga have been shown to reduce stress-related pain when they are practised regularly. The gentle stretching of yoga is particularly good for strengthening muscles without putting additional strain on your body.

Acupuncture

Although the World Health Organization currently recognises more than 30 diseases or conditions that can be helped by acupuncture treatment, one of the main uses of acupuncture is for pain relief.

Sixteenth-century Chinese doctors believed that illness was due to an imbalance of energy in the body. In acupuncture, disposable stainless-steel needles are used to stimulate the body's 14 major meridians, or energy-carrying channels, to resist or overcome illnesses and conditions by correcting these imbalances.

Acupuncture is also thought to reduce pain by increasing the release of chemicals that block pain, called endorphins. Many acu-points are close to nerves. When stimulated, these nerves cause a dull ache or a feeling of fullness in the muscle.

The stimulated muscle sends a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), triggering the release of endorphins - morphine-like chemicals produced in our own bodies during times of pain or stress. Endorphins, along with other neurotransmitters (body chemicals that modify nerve impulses), prevent the message of pain from being delivered to the brain.

Acupuncture may be useful as an accompanying treatment for many pain-related conditions, including headache, lower back pain, menstrual cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and myofascial pain. Acupuncture may also be an acceptable alternative to, or may be included as part of, a comprehensive pain management programme.

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