• Dr. Tania Dempsey

Why Prescription Pain Meds Are an Issue

The addiction to opioids, including prescription painkillers, is a serious global health problem. In The United States, it is estimated that 2.1 million people suffer from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.

The total number of opioid pain relievers prescribed in the United States has increased dramatically in the past 25 years from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million in 2013. The United States is the biggest consumer worldwide for 2 of the top opioid prescriptions, hydrocodone and oxycodone products.

The factors involved in the severity of the prescription pain medication abuse problem include increases in the number of prescriptions written, intensive marketing efforts by pharmaceutical companies and general acceptability in society to taking these medications for pain.

Prescription pain medications in the opioid class are highly addictive. They bind to opioid receptors in the brain, reducing the perception of pain and producing a sense of pleasure. Unfortunately, these receptors build up a tolerance, so they require more of the drug to get the same effect. This is the basis of the addictive potential and increases the risk of overdose.

We are now seeing a trend towards switching from prescription pain medications to heroin, which is equally dangerous, if not more so, since there is a high probability for contamination of heroin with other drugs, increasing the risk for overdose and death.

8 Natural Alternatives to Heavy Prescription Pain Meds

1. Curcumin, the active ingredient of the yellow spice Turmeric, is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound. Turmeric is native to Southeast Asia and its medicinal use dates back 4,000 years. Modern medicine has rediscovered the wonders of curcumin and now it is one of the most studied herbs, with over 5,000 published studies and articles. Curcumin has been shown to help with both acute and chronic inflammation and works by blocking certain inflammatory chemicals to reduce pain. It also increases our level of glutathione, the most important antioxidant in our liver and all cells in our body.

2. Glutathione can be taken as a supplement alone or can be boosted through a variety of natural compounds, such as curcumin. Glutathione is a critical antioxidant that helps the body rid itself of all sorts of toxins that irritate the nervous system and cause pain. All medications, infections, and environmental chemicals have to be metabolized through our liver and if there is a blockage to that process, the toxins build up. These toxins then lead to inflammation and irritation to certain parts of the body and ultimately pain.

3. Bromelain, derived from pineapple stems, is an enzyme that digests and breaks down proteins involved in inflammation. It can help with healing wounds particularly after surgery and can help dissolve bruises and scar tissue. Studies using Bromelain for pain due to arthritis show that it blocks an inflammation mediator in the body, called bradykinin, thereby causing an analgesic effect which decreases pain. But Bromelain can thin the blood and can interfere with certain medications, so it is important that you check with your physician before starting it.

4. Exercise can help you deal with pain better in two ways. One, moderate exercise increases your own natural production of endorphins, which are feel-good hormones, that bind the opioid receptors, the same receptors that painkillers bind to, and decrease pain by the same mechanism. Second, exercise increases your tolerance for pain so even if the pain is still there, the brain learns to push through it. This has remarkable implications in that if you can stick with an exercise routine, over time, you will feel less discomfort from the exercise itself and less impact from the pain that you are carrying.

5. Physical Therapy can also be very helpful for chronic pain. A good physical therapist will work with you to target specific areas where the pain is originating, like joint issues. Therapy can help strengthen the muscles around joints that are arthritic or have been injured. This can help take the pressure of the joint and can help with pain.

6. Acupuncture is a 3,000 year old healing technique of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Acupuncture uses needles that are placed in locations, called acupoints, that corresponds to specific parts of the body. The needles serve to move the energy, or qi, through pathways in the body to help with healing. It is believed that blockages in energy lead to pain or illness. Studies have shown that acupuncture can be helpful for both chronic as well as acute pain.

7. Relaxation techniques, including massage, meditation, guided imagery, emphasize the mind-body connection, which is very powerful in addressing pain. Stress increases the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, which decreases the pain threshold. This causes pain to be felt more acutely and triggers more inflammation, which leads to more pain. This becomes a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. By reducing stress through different relaxation modalities, your pain threshold changes, your ability to deal with the pain is easier and your overall health can be improved.

8. Sunlight and Vitamin D- Studies have shown that patients with pain disorders are more likely to be vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is important for bone health and muscle function and a deficiency in this important vitamin can contribute to pain, particularly lower back and musculoskeletal pain. To prevent or counteract the pain, be sure to get enough vitamin D through natural sunlight for 10-15 minutes a day or take a vitamin D3 supplement.

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