‘Hurting all the time is not an option’: The alternative paths to ease chronic pain

Jessica Salter
·6 min read
Chronic pain is thought to affect more than 20 million people in Britain
Chronic pain is thought to affect more than 20 million people in Britain

For those who suffer from chronic and sometimes unexplained pain, normal life just isn’t possible. Julie Derbyshire, 55, from Staffordshire suffered from chronic pain in her hands and knees for years. “I couldn’t peel veg or hold a phone for very long,” she says. “I couldn’t bend, and I had to walk with two sticks just to get about,” which meant that, tragically for Derbyshire, she could not walk her dog.

Chronic pain, which is defined as lasting or recurring for more than three months, is a silent epidemic that is thought to affect more than 20 million people in Britain. “Chronic pain by definition is any pain that has lasted six weeks or longer,” says Dr Houda Ounnas, GP. “Though in reality, by the time patients present to doctors and by the time it is diagnosed as chronic pain, the patient has probably endured it for longer.”.

It is notoriously hard to treat. “Until more recently, people with chronic or persistent pain have been kept in a cycle of painkillers, some physiotherapy, then stronger painkillers. However, clinicians are starting to realise that a medical model with a reliance on medication is ineffective for people with persistent or chronic pain,” says Dr Sue Peacock, consultant health psychologist.

Recently The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) updated its guidelines to advise sufferers of chronic pain that it has no known cause to use so-called natural therapies before painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol.

“Medication is simply not enough in the case of chronic pain. Which natural method works for which patient, is a question worth answering with a personalised plan,” Dr Ounnas says. “I tell all my patients that there are several options. The only things that is not an option, is being in pain all the time.”

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TV presenter Eamonn Holmes, 61, described himself as “the voice for many” when he tweeted recently about his own back pain, something he has suffered from for years. He encouraged his million followers to share their stories of their own chronic pain, as well as describing a new regime of cold showers, twice a day – something his physiotherapist recently recommended.

It is one of many alternative treatments that sufferers have turned to. “The diversity of our community is constantly reflected in conversations about treatments,” says Des Quinn, chair of Fibromyalgia Action UK. “Different approaches, including medication, either work or don’t, but you do not know until they are tried and the next patient will very likely be different.”

Studies back up the efficacy of non-medical treatments. Along with Holmes’ evangelism for cold water, a case study in the British Medical Journal reported on a man who found his back pain totally disappeared after swimming in cold water. Similarly, Dawn Craig, 49, from Midlothian found that cold water swimming has greatly eased back pain that once left her bedbound. Even after battling Covid last July, she managed to swim across the Channel, raising nearly £4,000 for a spinal health charity. “That’s my medication now,” she says.

Dawn Craig is a fan of cold water swimming - Anna Deacon Photography
Dawn Craig is a fan of cold water swimming - Anna Deacon Photography

Similarly, research into acupuncture, meditation and yoga all have shown promising results. A study published in the Journal of Pain reported that acupuncture can be effective for the treatment of chronic pain and that the effects could last for at least 12 months.

A review of studies by two American universities found that the use of mindful meditation can help sufferers. “Some recent studies of fibromyalgia and chronic low back pain patients who received mindfulness training also see a similar decoupling of sensory and affective pain, such that pain intensity or frequency does not necessarily decrease, but coping with the pain does improve,” the authors write.

Exercise is also known to help those with chronic back pain, according to research in 2017 which found that a 12-week yoga programme eased pain as much as physio treatment; the researchers said other types of exercise could also help. “Activity can be very beneficial,” Quinn says, “but some find they require a treatment plan or painkillers to even get to that exercise class.” Sufferers do need to approach with caution; a small percentage in the 2017 study found yoga made their back pain worse.

Others turn to nutrition and supplements. After four and a half months of taking a supplement made from marine plant extract, Derbyshire has noticed a huge improvement in her joint pain. “I've started knitting again, which I haven’t done for 10 years and love it. I am most looking forward to the better weather so I can start to finally enjoy going on walks again with my dog again. I feel unbelievably different.”

Derbyshire was part of two subjective user trials by the brand LithoLexal Joint Health, which found that from 75 users who were given supplements to try over a two-month period, 75 per cent said they experienced an improvement in pain levels.

There are other therapies such as music, where a study in the American Journal of Orthopedics reported that patients recovering from back surgery benefited from music therapy classes, while a study in JMIR Mental Health found that watching calming videos through virtual reality goggles significantly helped relieve pain thanks to its effects distracting the mind.

Dr Ounnas says that whatever methods are chosen, anyone with chronic pain should also see a psychologist. “This is imperative,” she says. “Not only because of the detrimental effects of living with chronic pain but also to teach them active methods to help distract the mind from pain as well as healing any unresolved emotional trauma that might have contributed to the pain in the first place. Pain is not always very well understood, and emotional pain can be perceived by the brain as physical pain.”

But while the new emphasis on trying natural treatments is broadly welcomed, both Quinn and Dr Peacock voice concern that some sufferers might worry. “I know that a lot of people with chronic or persistent pain will be concerned by these Nice guidelines as they fear they will be taken off medication and not offered self- supported pain management by health professionals trained in helping people with chronic/ persistent pain,” Dr Peacock warns.

Quinn agrees. “There is a large part of our society that are constantly in pain and not able to fulfil their potential that will and are continuing to suffer. When guidance takes away an option that is benefiting some without replacing it then they will feel slighted. We need a renewed focus on chronic pain and research that will give choices to our community rather than restricting them.”

Have you tried non-medical treatments for pain? Share your experience in the comments section below