Americans Are Using Integrative Medicine to Ease Pain

A survey released earlier this month by the National Institute of Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), a division of the National Institutes of Health, finds that an astonishingly high number of Americans — 25 million — said they’d experienced pain every day for the preceding three months. The report, “Pain in the U.S.,” is based on data from the 2012 National Health Interview Study, an annual survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that asks tens of thousands of Americans about their health.

Over 23 million Americans reported experiencing “a lot of pain.” “The number of people who suffer from severe and lasting pain is striking,” said Josephine P. Briggs, MD, director of the NCCIH, speaking in a press release about the report. “This analysis…may help shape future research, development and targeting of effective pain interventions, including complementary health approaches.”

Drug-Free Options for Treating Chronic Pain

That last part — getting more of us to use complementary, or natural, non-invasive, non-drug, options to ease pain — is important. The NIH survey found that pain is one of the leading reasons Americans try complementary health approaches such as yoga, chiropractic, massage and meditation, in fact — a heartening trend since opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone bring with them significant risks. These drug-free therapies are also likely to be particularly useful to people who cannot take narcotic painkillers because they’re in recovery.

Still, not everyone knows about non-drug options and how they might help ease the ache. A June 2015 report in PLoS One found that poorer Americans and those will less education were less likely to know about, and in turn use, four complementary therapies — acupuncture, chiropractic, natural products and yoga — to ease low-back pain.

The new NCCIH statistics are important because they also make clear just how big the issue of chronic pain is in the U.S. “This report begins to answer calls for better national data on the nature and extent of the pain problem,” said Richard L. Nahin, PhD, lead epidemiologist for NCCIH and the report’s author. And the information on people using methods such as yoga and massage for pain relief is particularly important because earlier this year the NIH released a consensus report on chronic pain that recommended doctors move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to treating chronic pain. Too often, treatment means prescribing powerful pain relievers that bring with them the potential for dependence, addiction and overdose in some people.

Instead, the NIH recommended a move toward a more individualized approach to pain management that would offer alternatives to patients before they start strong painkillers, including meditation, exercise and massage. “Clearly, there are patients for whom opioids are the best treatment for their chronic pain,” said David B. Reuben, MD, the chair of the consensus report panel, in a press release. “However, for others, there are likely to be more effective approaches.” Barriers to an individualized approach that lessens reliance on medication include, according to Dr. Reuben, the need for more evidence-based research, more training for physicians and more coverage by insurers of integrated approaches to pain management.

Time for a New Discussion About Treating Pain

“The survey findings clearly show the enormity of pain as a public health concern for our country,” says David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of the NCCIH. Dr. Shurtleff says the results also highlight that current approaches to easing chronic pain may not work for the majority of people and a discussion about non-drug approaches for treating pain needs to be had. CDC director Thomas Frieden, MD, speaks, too, frequently of the need for physicians to help prevent addiction to prescription painkillers in their patients by first discussing options other than prescription drugs when people come in for treatment.

Shurtleff says that NCCIH researchers are studying biological mechanisms of pain and the agency is also funding researchers around the country who are evaluating complementary approaches for pain management. “We hope that promising research findings — from fundamental insights into how we experience and process pain to whether specific approaches help alleviate pain — will offer health care providers and patients additional approaches they can consider for their treatment plans.”

NCCIH offers and frequently updates a pain management resource for consumers to help manage pain without prescription drugs.

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