Authored by Tieraona Low Dog, MD – Rightful Co-Founder, Chief Innovation Officer and Formulator
Finding your way to health and well-being is a bigger and more rewarding journey than simply numbing what hurts
The numbers are shocking: 100 million Americans report having recurring pain. That’s more than all those with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined. More than 25 million adults suffer from daily pain, with more than 23 million reporting severe pain. The incidence of low back pain in American adults is as high as 29%, with aging, obesity and lack of physical activity dramatically increasing the risk for developing this pain. With an aging population and more than 70% of American adults now overweight or obese, the number of people suffering from musculoskeletal conditions will only grow.
The mainstays of treatment in conventional medicine are prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Prescription opiates are big business with more than $13 billion in annual sales. While Americans make up roughly 5% of the world’s population, we consume around 80% of its opioids. Opiates are effective for pain relief but are also associated with significant downsides: tolerance (the need for more medication to achieve the same pain relief), increased sensitivity to pain, physical dependence, lower sex drive, confusion, constipation, dry mouth, nausea and vomiting, and an increased risk for new-onset depression after just three months of use. Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose, half of those deaths are from prescription opiates.
Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are effective and generally safe when used short-term for acute pain. However, the FDA has issued a warning about the risk of taking these medications by those with, or at high risk for, heart disease. Yet, data show that those with heart disease are more than twice as likely to take NSAIDs than those without heart disease.
Acetaminophen is believed to be safer than ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, which is why it is often recommended as a first-line pain therapy. However, a 2017 report found that acetaminophen was responsible for nearly half of all cases of acute liver failure in the United States and is the leading cause of liver transplantation. Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, followed 64,839 men and women (ages 50-76 years) for up to eight years and found an almost two-fold increased risk of blood cancers with prolonged use of acetaminophen (≥ 4 days/week for ≥ 4 years).
Pain: A Challenge and An Opportunity
As a physician, I’ve seen firsthand the toll pain takes on peoples’ lives. As someone who has lived with recurring pain, I know how challenging it can be…how it takes over and relentlessly wears on you. I also know that even when the pain is managed with prescription drugs, people still suffer. They suffer from poor sleep, depression, constipation, diarrhea and low libido, often as side effects of the medication. Developing tolerance or addiction to opioids is also a very serious outcome. The despair about ever getting better is endless and isolating.
Let me be really clear: pain, whether physical, emotional, spiritual or otherwise, is never something anyone would choose. But numbing oneself to pain denies the possibility of allowing it to guide us to different choices. Pain can beckon us to a different way of being. It can allow us the opportunity to step back and take a deeper inward look.
One of the first steps in regaining our health is to enhance our resiliency. From the word resilio, which literally means to bounce back, our ability to adapt and bounce back is crucial to our wellbeing. We optimize our reservoir of resilience by being a loving custodian of self. When we become more thoughtful about what we are eating, turn down and tune out divisive news and social media, find ways to move, both physically and mentally, and honor our need for rest and sleep, we create space for healing.
As we nourish our resiliency, our physiology begins to find its equilibrium and we notice that we have more energy, feel happier, are more mentally alert and more empowered. Yes, there will be difficult times – recurrence of pain, worsening of pain, sadness, misunderstanding or lack of empathy. But these experiences are easier to bear when our underlying sense of self, resilience and inner strength is intact. This takes time…have patience and be gentle with your personal evolution.
Create a Health Care Team
When you are living with pain, a broad integrative approach is your best strategy. Find a practitioner you can work with, or even better, a team of practitioners who will spend time getting to know you and what you are living with. Musculoskeletal problems often improve with chiropractic/osteopathic care, massage and/or physical therapy. In some cases, you might need structural repair (I had my hip replaced in 2006).
When the reason for your pain may not be structural, integrative pain physicians, naturopathic doctors and/or acupuncturists can all be very helpful. Naturopaths and acupuncturists who are knowledgeable about the use of dietary supplements and botanical remedies can add another effective dimension to support your body’s natural recovery. Nature has provided a plethora of plants that can enhance our resiliency, improve our mood, help us sleep better and tamp down inflammation.
There is unquestionably a place for prescription and OTC pain medicines in pain management. Additionally, committing to and investing your time in an overall, multidisciplinary wellness plan can help support the body with its natural ability to deal with pain.
The Bottom Line: you are your best health advocate; do whatever it takes to get you where you want to be.
Recognize Healing as Your Personal Journey
Finding your way to health and well-being is a bigger and more rewarding journey than simply numbing what hurts. I have found that the quality of our lives can actually expand and deepen, even as we journey through pain. Small shifts over time can–and will–lead to powerful changes that can transform your experience.
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
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Tieraona Low Dog, MD
Rightful Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer