by Dr Arun K Tomson, Director of AyurMa, Wellness Coach and Naturopathic Physician
This article was also published in WellSpa360 in August, 2023
Pain is a complex and subjective experience that is typically associated with physical or emotional discomfort. It serves as a protective mechanism that alerts the body to potential or actual damage or injury. Pain can be described as an unpleasant sensation of feeling that is often characterised by localised or generalised discomfort, distress or suffering.
Physically, pain can arise from various sources, such as injuries, illness or medical conditions. It can be acute, which is a temporary and immediate response to an injury, or chronic, lasting for an extended period of time, often beyond the expected healing time.
Pain is not solely a physical phenomenon; it can also have emotional and psychological dimensions.
Emotional pain can stem from grief, loss, trauma or other distressing life events. Furthermore, the experience of pain can be influenced by psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, depression, and one’s perception of the situation.
Physiology of Pain
Pain stems from the activation of the nervous system. The perception of pain involves a complex interplay of sensory, cognitive and emotional processes. It begins with the activation of specialized nerve endings called nociceptors, which detect potentially harmful stimuli and transmit signals to the brain and spinal cord. The brain then processes these signals and interprets them as pain, integrating them with contextual information and past experiences.
Types of Pain
Pain can be classified into several different types based on various factors, including its origin, duration and underlying causes.
Here are some common types of pain:
1. Nociceptive pain: This type of pain arises from the activation of specialised nerve endings called nociceptors, which respond to potentially harmful stimuli, such as heat, pressure or injury.
Nociceptive pain can be further classified into two subtypes:
1.1. Somatic pain: This originates from the stimulation of nociceptors in the skin, muscles, bones or joints. It is typically described as a sharp, localised pain and is often associated with injuries, fractures, sprains or surgeries.
1.2. Visceral pain: This results from the activation of nociceptors in the internal organs located in the abdomen or chest. It is often described as a deep, dull or cramp-like pain and can be caused by conditions such as organ inflammation, obstruction or stretching.
2. Neuropathic pain: This occurs due to damage or dysfunction of the nervous system itself. It is typically chronic and characterised by abnormal sensations, such as burning, tingling or electric shocks. Neuropathic pain can be caused by conditions like nerve compression, diabetic neuropathy, shingles or nerve injuries.
3. Radicular pain: This is caused by the compression or irritation of a spinal nerve root. It often radiates along the pathway of the nerve, causing pain, numbness or weakness in the corresponding area of the body.
4. Referred pain: This is felt in a different location from the actual source of the problem.
5. Psychogenic pain: This refers to pain that is primarily influenced by psychological or emotional factors. It may have no apparent physical cause or can be disproportionate to the extent of any physical injury.
6. Acute pain: Acute pain is temporary and typically occurs in response to a specific injury, surgery
or illness. It serves as a warnin
g sign and prompts immediate attention to the underlying issue.
7. Chronic pain: Chronic pain persists for an extended period, often beyond the expected healing time. It may be caused by an ongoing medical condition or result from damage to the nerves.
This is a tool used to assess and measure the intensity or severity of pain experienced by an individual. It is a standardised way to communicate pain levels to health care providers.
The most commonly used pain scale is the Numeric Rating Scale (NRS), which asks a person to rate their pain intensity on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing no pain and 10 representing the worst possible pain.
NATURAL APPROACHES TO MANAGE PAIN
Several natural methods can be used to manage pain. While these approaches may not completely eliminate all types of pain, they can often provide relief and complement other medical treatments.
Heat and cold therapy for pain management
Applying heat or cold to the affected area can help reduce pain.
Hot application for chronic pain: Use a hot pack, warm towel, or take a warm bath for chronic muscular pain or stiffness without swelling. The application of heat dilates blood vessels and promotes blood circulation. Enhanced blood flow brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to the area while removing waste products and toxins, which can reduce pain and promote healing.
Heat therapy can relax tense muscles and ease muscle spasms. It helps improve the flexibility and elasticity of soft tissues, reducing muscle stiffness and tension.
Heat can raise the pain threshold, meaning that it takes a higher level of stimulation to trigger the sensation of pain. This effect occurs because heat stimulates the thermoreceptors in the skin, which can “override” or dampen the signals of pain receptors, providing temporary relief.
The application of heat to an area can block or diminish the transmission of pain signals to the brain. The heat stimuli can activate non-painful sensory nerves, effectively competing with the pain signals and reducing their perception.
A hot foot bath covering the feet and ankles at a temperature of 39°–43° C or 103°–110° F, combined with a cold compress onto the head, relieves congestive headaches, stress and tension.
Cold application for acute pain: Cold therapy can effectively manage acute pain through various mechanisms. When applies to the body, cold temperatures can help alleviate pain by numbing the nerves, which can help reduce the transmission of pain signals to the brain. Cold also constricts blood vessels in the affected area, which reduces blood flow and limits the inflammatory response.
Cold compresses or packs can indirectly help with certain digestive health issues by addressing associated symptoms.
Exercise & physical activity
Engaging in regular exercise and physical activity can help manage pain by releasing endorphins, which are natural painkillers.
Physical activity reduces chronic pain by building muscle strength and flexibility, reducing fatigue, reducing pain sensitivity and reducing inflammation. Research suggests that exercise may even be effective in reducing pain in conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic neck/shoulder disorders.
It is important to note that the type and intensity of exercise should be appropriate for an individual’s condition and capabilities. It is advisable to consult a qualified exercise specialist to develop a personalised program.
Approach of yoga for pain management
Yoga is a holistic practice that combines physical postures, breath control and meditation to promote overall well-being. It can be an effective tool for alleviating pain through various mechanisms.
Yoga involves gentle stretching, strengthening and balancing postures that improve flexibility, muscle strength and joint stability. These physical benefits can reduce pain associated with conditions like arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia and other musculoskeletal issues.
Chronic pain often leads to stress, tension and anxiety which can exacerbate pain perception. Yoga incorporates relaxation techniques, mindfulness and deep breathing exercises that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress. By managing stress, yoga can indirectly alleviate pain.
Mind-body connection: Yoga emphasizes the connection between mind and body. Through focused attention on the breath and sensations in the body during yoga practice, individuals can cultivate a heightened awareness of their pain. This increased awareness can lead to a better understanding of the pain, helping individuals develop coping strategies and reducing the intensity of pain perception.
Engaging in the physical movements of yoga stimulates the release of endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving chemicals in the body. Endorphins can help reduce pain perception and create a sense of well-being.
It is important to note that yoga should be practised with awareness and adapted to individual needs and limitations. It is recommended to consult with a yoga instructor who can provide guidance and recommend appropriate modifications based on a person’s specific conditions and pain levels.
Light therapy for pain management
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, can be used as a non-invasive and drug-free approach for pain management.
1) Infra-red light therapy: Considered safe and non-invasive, infra-red light can be applied through various devices, such as infrared lamps, infrared saunas or handheld devices. It is believed to offer several mechanisms of action for pain management:
a) It can penetrate deep into the tissues, promoting vasodilation and increasing blood flow to the affected area. Improved circulation can enhance oxygen and nutrient delivery, as well as facilitate the removal of metabolic waste products, thereby reducing pain and promoting healing.
b) It has anti-inflammatory effects by modulating the inflammatory response in the body. It can help decrease pro-inflammatory markers such as cytokines and promote the release of anti- inflammatory substances, potentially reducing pain associated with inflammation.
c) It has been found to stimulate cellular activity including the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the primary energy source for cells. This energy boost can enhance tissue repair processes, promote collagen synthesis and accelerate healing, ultimately leading to pain reduction.
d) It can have a modulating effect on nerve function, influencing the transmission of pain signals to the brain. It may help reduce nerve sensitivity and inhibit the transmission of pain signals, resulting in pain relief.
2) Low-level laser therapy (LLLT): Also known as cold laser therapy, LLLT uses low-intensity lasers or LEDs to target specific areas of pain or injury. The light energy penetrates the skin and stimulates cellular activity, which can reduce pain and inflammation and promote tissue repair. LLLT is often used for musculoskeletal conditions such as tendonitis and sprains, and chronic pain conditions.
3) Red light therapy: This utilizes low-level red or near-infrared light to penetrate the skin and stimulate cellular energy production. This can help reduce inflammation, promote tissue healing and relieve pain. It is commonly used for various types of musculoskeletal pain, including joint pain, muscle soreness and arthritis.
4) Blue light therapy: This is primarily used to treat skin conditions like acne, but it may have some pain relieving effects as well. Blue light has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce pain and discomfort associated with certain inflammatory conditions.
Acupuncture and pain management
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine technique that involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points of the body.
It stimulates specific points in the body, which triggers the release of endorphins and other neurochemicals. These natural substances can help alleviate pain by modulating pain signals in the nervous system and promoting a sense of well-being.
Acupuncture has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, which can be beneficial for various pain conditions, including arthritis, tendonitis and muscle strains. By reducing inflammation, acupuncture can help decrease pain and promote healing.
Insertion of an acupuncture needle promotes blood flow to the targeted areas. This increased circulation can help deliver oxygen, nutrients, and immune cells to the affected tissues, aiding in pain relief and tissue repair.
Acupuncture sessions are typically relaxing and the experience itself can help reduce stress and anxiety. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, acupuncture promotes a state of relaxation, which can be beneficial for managing pain that is exacerbated by stress or tension.
Aromatherapy for pain management
Some essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus, have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. They can be diluted with a carrier oil and applied topically to affected areas, or used in a diffuser to allow the aroma to be inhaled.
By inhaling pleasant aromas of essential oils, the brain’s limbic system is stimulated, triggering a relaxation response and reducing anxiety. People may experience a reduction in the perception of pain. Aromatherapy can be a helpful complementary approach.
Ayurvedic approach toward pain management
According to Ayurveda, pain is caused by imbalances in the tri-doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) and the accumulation of toxins (ama) in the body.
Ayurveda focuses on identifying and addressing the underlying imbalances in the doshas and reducing the accumulation of toxins to alleviate pain. Treatment approaches aim to restore balance, improve digestion, strengthen Agni, or gut health, and support the body’s natural healing mechanisms. This is achieved through various therapies.
Some of the commonly used herbs in Ayurvedic formulations for pain relief include ginger, turmeric, boswellia, clove, eucalyptus, nutmeg, ashwagandha and guggulu – believed to help reduce inflammation, alleviate pain, and promote healing.
Dietary adjustments may be given based on the individual constitution and the nature of the pain. In general, a balanced diet that includes fresh whole foods and warming spices and herbs can be beneficial. Avoiding foods that aggravate the specific dosha imbalance related to the pain is also advised.
Ayurveda uses external therapies such as the local application of herbal oils or poultices to alleviate pain in specific areas. These therapies can help reduce inflammation, improve blood circulation, and provide relief from localised pain and discomfort.
In conclusion, natural methods can be valuable tools in managing pain and promoting overall well-being. While they may not replace medical treatment or intervention, they can complement conventional approaches and provide holistic support. Natural methods for pain management empower individuals to take an active role in their own well-being. Each person’s pain experience is unique, and a personalised approach can lead to the best outcomes. By exploring the natural approaches, one can enhance their pain management strategies and improve their overall quality of life.
For a tailored holistic wellness plan to improve pain naturally, contact the AyurMa team here.