You Don’t Have to Live in Pain
by Gary E. Deng, MD, PhD
Most people will experience pain at some point during their lives. If you have cancer, you may experience pain caused by the cancer itself or by its treatment, such as neuropathic pain caused by chemotherapy. If you’re experiencing pain, don’t try to tough it out. Chronic pain can lead to anxiety and depression and can increase stress. And chronic stress hurts both the body and the mind.
Medications are often necessary to relieve pain. However, if the medications are not effective or if they begin to cause too many side effects, nonpharmaceutical options (such as physical therapy, radiation therapy, or in severe cases, nerve blocking) may be helpful. You might also consider therapies that traditionally have not been part of Western mainstream medical care but that can be used to complement standard care. These complementary therapies include mind-body therapies, massage therapy, and acupuncture.
Complementary therapies are an effective tool in cancer pain management.
Mind-body therapies take advantage of the connection between your mind and body to reduce pain. Pain sensation is made up of two components: 1) tissue injury, which generates the pain signal to the brain, and 2) the perception of pain, which is how the brain processes that pain signal. Mind-body therapies will not reduce tissue injury, but they can change the brain’s perception of the pain signal, thereby reducing the feeling of pain.
One type of mind-body therapy is meditation. During meditation, you take on the role of an observer of the pain sensation rather than a participator. This intentional detachment may lower the intensity of your pain. Meditation may also help reduce anxiety. When we are nervous and fearful, pain often feels worse. On the other hand, pain does not have the same impact when we are calm and peaceful.
For meditation to be effective, regular practice is needed. A good instructor can teach you the technique. Afterward, you need to make meditation a part of your daily routine to reap its benefits. Other mind-body therapies include guided imagery, yoga, breathing exercises, and music therapy.
Massage therapy is often used to relieve musculoskeletal pain. Sometimes, achiness in muscles, tendons, and ligaments comes from their misalignment or from holding too much tension. For example, back pain can develop from continual poor posture or from overuse. Another example is tissue contraction after breast or neck surgery as part of cancer treatment. Receiving a medical massage from a properly trained therapist can loosen tissues, put them back in alignment, and reduce tissue inflammation. It’s important to find a massage therapist who is trained to treat people with cancer because there are many safety precautions the therapist will need to take.
Acupuncture is another complementary therapy that can help manage pain. It involves inserting needles into certain points on the body and then stimulating the needles manually or with heat or electric pulses. Each treatment lasts 20 to 60 minutes. The needles are very thin, sterile, and disposable. When done correctly, acupuncture is not painful. Because it is a highly technique-oriented treatment, acupuncture should only be provided by a certified acupuncturist experienced in treating problems commonly seen in people with cancer.
In clinical trials, acupuncture has been shown to reduce pain due to various causes. Research shows that acupuncture can induce pain-suppressing neurotransmitters – chemicals made by our bodies that act as internal morphine.
You don’t have to live in pain. More options are now available in our arsenal to fight pain. Complementary therapies such as these can be valuable additions to a conventional pain management plan.
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Dr. Gary Deng is an attending physician in the Integrative Medicine Service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. His expertise is in complementary and alternative medicine that can help people with cancer.
Most major cancer centers in the U.S. have an integrative medicine program where highly trained therapists provide complementary therapies. Contact one in your area to see how you can benefit from these therapies.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.