Chronic pain is the kind that lasts three months or more. It affects upwards of fifty million Americans. Many turn to opioids for relief, such as pain pills then all too often heroin and fentanyl. These highly addictive drugs lead to America's opioid crisis, which health experts say has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health officials in 35 states are reporting increased cases of opioid-related deaths and draw a connection to feelings of isolation stemming from lock-down orders and depression associated with loss of income.
In their book Living Beyond Pain, physician James Kribs and a therapist Linda Mintle offer a whole-person approach to pain management, addressing the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of pain and providing alternative strategies that don't rely on opioids. Through education, daily guided cognitive activities, and more, they say a chronic pain sufferer can reprogram their neurologic pathways and experience improvement in symptoms.
Dr. Mintle knows first-hand the agony of persistent pain. Months after an accidental fall she only felt worse.
"When it got to the point when I couldn't stand, I couldn't sit, the only position I could be in was to be on my stomach, flat on the ground, I knew that was really, really bad," she told CBN News.
Even prescription pain pills failed.
"I took one and I thought I was having an out-of-body experience," she recalled, "It was worse, the feeling was worse than the actual feeling of pain I was having."
Like millions of Americans, Linda felt left alone to deal with her pain.
"You just want it to stop," she said, "You will do anything to get relief."
Eventually, an operation made Linda's pain go away, but she was fortunate. Surgery isn't always successful, or even an option, for many chronic pain sufferers.
As a psychologist, Linda wanted to help others and teamed up with pain specialist Dr. James Kribs to develop a comprehensive guide to offer hope to people with long-term pain.
"The primary things that people suffer with," Dr. Kribs told CBN News, "are low back pain, neck pain, headaches, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, [and] also neuropathic diseases such as diabetes."
Pain Perceived in the Brain
Scientists tell us while the source of pain can be anywhere in the body, the way we actually feel pain comes from the brain. So while pain isn't in our head, the way we perceive pain is.
"Certainly the patients who relate to their pain and to their life in a positive way and submitting it to God have done much better," said Dr. Kribs.
Sometimes people with pain dwell on negative or even catastrophic thoughts. These are fears of the worst possible outcome. These pessimistic thoughts can and should be replaced with more positive ones.
"Here's a good example," Linda explained, "'I can't get out of bed today, I can't get up.' You can say, 'I feel the pain today but I'm going to do it slowly, I'm going to move and I'm going to get myself out and get that first step.'"
Another tool to help focus on the positive involves keeping a daily gratitude journal in which you write down the things for which you are thankful.
"What that does it activates different parts of your brain that are separate from the areas causing pain. So you're actually starting to re-write those areas, and re-wire those areas so you're having less pain," Dr. Kribs said.
Also, get involved with hobbies, social activities, and anything that might distract from the pain.
"The patients that I see really struggle are the ones who, where their pain has become the focus of their lives," said Kribs.
Instead, visualize your best-case scenario, a process called guided imagery, used by world-class athletes.
"Imagine your life with less pain," he said, "Imagine yourself being active, and your brain's going to start following those things."
Change Your Behavior
Doctors also recommend acupuncture and meditation.
"I meditate on his word day and night," said Dr. Mintle, "And I think about the Lord. And I'll tell you, those nights when I couldn't sleep, when I was dealing with that chronic pain, there were nights when I would just, in my bed, say, 'Jesus, Jesus,' and I would just say his name and there's power in the name of Jesus."
Although many believe moving around might make their pain worse, studies show the opposite is true. Exercise really helps.
Also, don't eat food that causes painful inflammation, like sugary and processed items. Instead, pursue a whole-food, plant-based diet that can lower inflammation. An added benefit will be a lighter load for your body to bear.
"You feel the pain 20 percent more if you have weight problems and you're overweight," Dr. Mintle said, "So it's hard to lose weight, very difficult to do that, but it really will help your pain."
So while people suffering from chronic pain may not get rid of it entirely, changing some thoughts and behaviors can make it more manageable.
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This story was originally published on July 15, 2020.