In a one-year period, more than 54 percent of Americans report musculoskeletal pain, including arthritis pain, low back pain, and neck pain. The search for relief has created a different kind of epidemic. The opioids frequently prescribed for pain relief have created a crisis of addiction, shattering families and stealing more than forty-five thousand lives a year. Other pain medications, like nonsteroidal-anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), damage our internal organs and claim more than ten thousand lives a year. We turn to these medications because we are offered no other path to pain relief or prevention. We have a medication crisis because we have a pain crisis. Pain hijacks lives, destroys families, and disables communities.
Severe pain limits routine activities like getting dressed and walking. It keeps us from fully participating in life. Low back pain alone causes more disability than any other medical condition in the United States and worldwide. In the United States, musculoskeletal disorders and neck pain are the third and fourth leading causes of disability, and arthritis ranks in the top ten. Of the top four causes of disability, three of them are spine and musculoskeletal issues. Often, the second leading cause, depression, is linked to ongoing pain. Incapacitating pain prevents caring for ourselves, caring for loved ones, and enjoying a good quality of life. Pain riddles our country, and the number of people hampered by chronic pain keeps increasing.
We may have heard of nonpharmacological ways to treat pain or reduce inflammation, but these approaches are not advertised with Super Bowl commercials or full magazine spreads. Improving our food intake, sleep, movement, and stress levels are measures that don’t help sell pills or food products. Massive industries spend billions of dollars a year to keep us misinformed and de- pendent on their products. For example, the processed food industry orchestrates our addiction to nutrient-poor, processed foods loaded with inflammatory sugars, salts, carbohydrates, and fats. These foods make us feel worse but keep us coming back for more. Similarly, big pharmaceutical companies want you to believe that you need addictive, expensive, and potentially deadly medications to feel better. They are wrong.
Without being offered viable alternatives to medication, many of us are left trapped in pain. Experiencing chronic pain is not the result of mistakes, indifference, laziness, or lack of willpower to eat healthy foods or exercise more. But neither is it an unalterable destiny. My Relief-5R plan is based on making small personalized tweaks to diet, movement, stress levels, mindset, and environment that help us to function better and live every day with less pain, less inflammation, and less disability.
Some people fear that making choices that promote wellness will require time-consuming, disruptive, or expensive changes to their lives, but the Relief-5R plan makes it easy: You choose the changes that will work for you. In addition, it offers huge potential gains. Do you have more energy after you eat real, unprocessed food? Do you feel better when you do some type of self-paced movement? Does your day go more smoothly if you have had enough sleep? Do you handle stress better when you take just ten minutes to reset? Do you feel happier when you spend time with people you care about? The answer to these questions is usually yes — or hell, yes! The key to living with less pain is understanding what relieves pain, why it works, and how to achieve it.
Saloni Sharma is a pain management and rehabilitation medicine physician and author of The Pain Solution: 5 Steps to Relieve and Prevent Back Pain, Muscle Pain, and Joint Pain without Medication.
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