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Managing pain with integrative care

Supportive care for breast cancer
Combining integrative and conventional pain management strategies for patients with chronic pain offers a more balanced approach and the potential for improved results. A growing body of research suggests mind-body therapies can help manage pain and reduce stress.

More Americans are turning to integrative therapies to help manage pain without medication or surgery. Therapies such as yoga, massage, osteopathic manipulative medicine (hands-on care from an osteopathic physician) and meditation promote health and well-being through direct touch, stretching and strengthening, or by stilling the mind.

Combining integrative and conventional pain management strategies for patients with chronic pain offers a more balanced approach and the potential for improved results. A growing body of research suggests mind-body therapies can help manage pain and reduce stress. As a clinician who treats cancer patients with chronic pain, I know well the importance of controlling pain to optimize quality of life. Our hospitals promote an integrative approach to cancer care, which grounds the way I talk to and treat patients.

I recently cared for a woman who was undergoing treatment for lung cancer at our hospital near Chicago and taking medication to help with peripheral neuropathy in her feet. She was concerned about becoming addicted to her medication. I was able to dispel her fears, and shared with her that the goal of treatment is for her to control the pain, not to let the pain control her. In addition to her pain medication, which was helping, we had an in-depth conversation about chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage therapy and other therapies that may help relieve her pain. When it’s appropriate for the patient, I always suggest integrative therapy options as a means to alleviate or manage pain, which can potentially reduce a patient’s reliance on prescription pain relievers.

Patients have many options when considering integrative therapies. Here are therapies that have been studied for their association to pain relief:

  • Yoga: Regular yoga practice may improve pain tolerance by improving function in the insular cortex, a part of the brain that helps regulate pain perception. Yoga has been used to help alleviate conditions such as chronic back and neck pain, and has been found to reduce depression, pain and fatigue in older women with breast cancer.
  • Meditation: Mindfulness meditation may have long-lasting effects in patients with chronic pain, and has been found to help patients reduce their use of pain medication.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis therapy also may be effective for managing chronic pain.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture has been found effective in reducing a variety of chronic pain conditions, such as back pain, neck pain, headaches and arthritis.
  • Sauna: In a small study of chronic pain patients, use of daily infrared sauna for four weeks in combination with multidisciplinary pain management therapies was found to enhance the effect of treatment.

It’s important to select a therapy or therapies that match your interest level, physical abilities and lifestyle. Always discuss any new pain management strategies with your doctor first. And be sure to inform your doctor of any nutritional supplements you may be taking. A recent study found that 62 percent of cancer patients took vitamins and herbal supplements. But 40 percent of these patients had not discussed it with their doctors. Supplements may interact with pain medications or other pharmaceuticals, so always discuss your supplement use with your doctor.

Learn more about pain management in cancer care.