When one is in pain, little else seems to matter. But a broad range of treatments is available to mitigate chronic pain and help those who are suffering get back to their lives. Irene Wu, MD, assistant director of UCLA’s Comprehensive Pain Center, is an anesthesiologist who specializes in pain control. She discusses ways to prevent pain and describes some of the methods she uses to treat chronic pain.
How can people prevent or reduce pain?
“Preventive measures include physical therapy, such as core strengthening and back-strengthening exercises,” Dr. Wu says. “That’s the only proven way to slow down the degenerative process.” Exercise and physical fitness prevent deconditioning, a wasting of the muscles or a decrease in strength of the muscles throughout the body. Physical deconditioning predisposes people for injuries. An exercise routine should include endurance (cardio) exercise 30 minutes a day at least three or four times per week, strength training and an activity like yoga that promotes flexibility twice a week. Diet also can play an important role. Foods such as refined carbohydrates, fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages may promote inflammation; others, such as green leafy vegetables, fatty fish and nuts, may reduce it.
Are therapies such as acupuncture, massage and mind-body techniques effective in addressing pain?
“Acupuncture and massage are beneficial for a lot of people,” Dr. Wu says. “And they have minimal side effects.” Mind-body techniques may include meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and biofeedback. “Meditation and other mind-body techniques can be very helpful because they go hand in hand with stress reduction. Pain and anxiety can create a vicious cycle,” Dr. Wu says. “Meditation can help clear the mind and distract from the pain.”
What medications are beneficial to control pain?
Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti- inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen may help to alleviate pain. “Topical medications such as patches and creams that contain numbing agents, or those with anti-inflammatories, can also provide relief,” Dr. Wu says. A physician may prescribe medications to alleviate pain and relax muscles. “We have different tiers of medication and try to use the most conservative options that can bring relief to the patient.”
What are other available treatments?
In addition to physical therapy, some treatments that pain-control specialists might administer include:
“There are many components to pain, and there’s not one magic pill or magic injection that can make the pain go away,” Dr. Wu says. “It’s like peeling an onion — I do one thing and see how you do, and then the next thing and see how you do. Eventually, we get to a point where you are functional and hopefully can live life to the fullest.”