News: One in Five US Adults Have Chronic Pain—Here’s How You Can Get Some Relief Naturally

When pills aren’t the answer.

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Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something’s wrong. Acute pain begins suddenly and catches your attention immediately, letting you know that you’ve been hurt. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is long-term pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. It can feel like anything from a dull ache to a burning or stinging sensation, and often comes from an injury, like nerve root compression from a herniated disc, or from health conditions like osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.

Chronic pain can be debilitating. According to a September 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it now affects one in five US adults—that's about 50 million Americans. More than 19 million adults (8 percent) experience high-impact pain that frequently limits the ability to perform daily tasks, like grocery shopping and getting to work. Anyone can experience lasting discomfort, but older adults, women, people in rural areas and adults living in poverty are at a higher risk.

This pain is often treated with medications, like opioids, which are highly addictive drugs that have led to an epidemic of abuse and overdoses the last few years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 15,000 people died from overdosing on prescription opioids in 2015 alone.

That's one of the reasons you may want to try to reduce chronic pain naturally. Even though you may not get rid of it completely, you can lessen its effects. “Physicians and patients should be having discussions not about the elimination of pain, but rather improving pain to improve a functional goal in their life,” says Scott Joy, MD, an internist at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

Maintain a healthy weight

2 / 6 Maintain a healthy weight

Between 2008 and 2010, the Gallup organization conducted a survey of over one million people, grouping them according to height and weight. The overweight group, those with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9, self-reported 20 percent higher rates of pain than those with a low-to-normal BMI, less than 24.9. Those who were obese—a BMI of 30 or more—self-reported pain levels 68 percent higher than those in the low-level pain group.

Excess weight can contribute to chronic pain, but it works the other way, too. People with high levels of pain may become overweight because they have a hard time moving, which then exacerbates their existing pain.

Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can help reduce stress on your joints. And if you're overweight or obese, even small reductions to your waistline can reduce joint pain. “For every pound of weight loss, that's four pounds less weight on your joints,” says Dr. Joy.

Say "yes" to exercise

3 / 6 Say "yes" to exercise

Physical therapy is designed to improve mobility and alleviate chronic pain. As part of or in addition to that therapy, a range of exercises like yoga, tai chi, swimming or weight training can help.

Yoga's mix of focused breathing, meditation and movement has been found to be effective in reducing aches and soreness. In a systematic review published in Annals of Internal Medicine, people who practiced yoga felt pain less intensely and functioned better than those who received usual care or education, or were in an exercise program.

It's not just yoga, other types of exercise may help, too. One April 2016 review in Scientific Reports found that tai chi immediately relieved pain from osteoarthritis, a chronic condition that causes stiffness or swelling of the joints, for up to one day; there was also evidence it provided relief for lower back pain.

Speak with your doctor or physical therapist before beginning any exercise regimen. They can start you slowly, tailor your workouts to your specific needs and capabilities and modify moves as you go along.

Practice mindfulness meditation

4 / 6 Practice mindfulness meditation

"Anything that can improve your mood is going to have the potential to reduce chronic pain,” says Joy. Mindfulness meditation, which trains your brain to focus on the present moment and your breath, is one way. Though more research is needed, a 2017 review in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found evidence of a small decrease in pain for those who practiced mindfulness meditation compared to those who didn't. It also found improvements in quality of life and depression symptoms, both of which can affect pain.

To try mindfulness meditation, grab a chair or sit cross-legged on the floor, and focus on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath. If you’re not sure mindfulness meditation is right for you, try a different method of meditation.

Try talking to a therapist

5 / 6 Try talking to a therapist

Seeing a mental health professional can help you deal emotionally with chronic pain, and may even help alleviate it. One way is by addressing depression. Pain and depression have a two-way relationship. “Depression often presents as physical pain, and a lot of people don't recognize that,” says Joy. But it can also work the other way—for example, someone in constant physical pain might isolate themselves socially, which can make them depressed.

A multi-disciplinary approach that includes therapy may be helpful for someone with chronic pain. According to an April 2017 study in The Journal of Pain, cognitive behavioral therapy was found to lessen depression and pain-related anxiety. This method is often used to help distract, change thought patterns and alter the way a patient’s brain perceives pain—and it’s increasingly being used as a safe alternative to opioids.

Joining a support group might also help people with chronic pain. A June 2013 study in Pain and Therapy examined the effects of a single 120-minute group meeting on pain reduction in 53 patients. Participants shared their experiences, and study leaders went through practical skills for coping with chronic pain. Later, patients reported reduced pain, and said the session was helpful overall and should be offered to other patients experiencing pain.

Look for a support group in your community; Chronic Pain Anonymous and Meetup are good places to start.

Stop smoking

6 / 6 Stop smoking

The same nicotine that triggers the feel-good dopamine in your brain might be simultaneously causing you pain. Smoking has been linked to several kinds of chronic pain, like back pain. It can reduce blood flow to your bones and tissues, which may cause problems, especially in the discs in your spine. Because that area already has reduced blood flow, this can lead to lower back pain.

Throwing out your cigarettes could help. “Stopping smoking can reduce your risk of developing narrowing of the arteries in your arms and legs, known as peripheral vascular disease, which can be a cause of chronic pain,” says Joy. Here are some tips on getting started.

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