Holistic Therapies for Chronic Pain

Holistic Therapies for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a big problem in the United States. In 2019, 20.4% of adults had chronic pain and 7.4% of adults had chronic pain that frequently limited life or work activities (referred to as high impact chronic pain) in the past 3 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Chronic pain and high-impact chronic pain both increase with age and are highest among adults aged 65 and over. The most common type of chronic pain is low back pain, followed by migraine and headache pain, neck and facial pain. 

Chronic pain is linked to decreased quality of life, opioid dependence, increased stress and poor mental health. It can also affect mobility and a person’s ability to work and actively participate in life.

In a research review published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the authors write, “Chronic pain, often defined as pain lasting longer than 3 months or past the normal time for tissue healing, can lead to significant medical, social, and economic consequences, relationship issues, lost productivity, and larger health care costs.”

“The Institute of Medicine recognizes pain as a significant public health problem that costs our nation at least $560–635 billion annually, including costs of health care and lost productivity.”

“Further, chronic pain is frequently accompanied by psychiatric disorders such as pain medication addiction and depression that make treatment complicated. The high prevalence and refractory nature of chronic pain, in conjunction with the negative consequences of pain medication dependence, has led to increased interest in treatment plans that include adjunctive therapy or alternatives to medication.”

Thankfully, research has shown that there are several complementary health techniques and botanicals that may help with chronic pain issues.


The Hindu spiritual discipline of yoga involves breath control, simple meditation and the adoption of specific bodily postures. It is widely practiced for health and relaxation.

In a study of yoga for chronic pain, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine, the authors write, “Because chronic pain involves multiple facets, the whole person is affected, and is likely why individuals with chronic pain are large consumers of complementary and integrative therapies (CIT).”

‘Therefore, a holistic mind-body intervention that is capable of simultaneously targeting multiple factors may be the most effective intervention for people with pain. Integrative therapies, such as yoga, address the whole person, connect the mind and body, and are holistic. Additionally, emotional or cognitive responses to the physical pain may lead to a disconnect between the mind and body, which may also be addressed via yoga.”

The 8-week study was conducted at an outpatient pain clinic that provided care for underserved and underinsured individuals. Yoga was offered twice a week with each session lasting 60 minutes. The program was standardized and progressive, moving from sitting postures to standing and floor postures.

The authors write that “providing 8 weeks of yoga at a community pain clinic to people with different types and location of pain was both feasible and beneficial.”

Relaxation Techniques

Some relaxation techniques include progressive muscle relaxation (a focus on the tightening and relaxation of different muscle groups), autogenic training (a technique that teaches your body to respond to your verbal commands), deep and slow breathing (DSB) and imagery.

In a review of the effectiveness of relaxation techniques in both acute and chronic pain, overall relaxation was found to have a significant effect on pain outcomes in 8 of 15 randomized control studies. In particular, progressive muscle relaxation was found to reduce pain sensation in chronic low back pain, arthritis and pregnancy-related pain. 


Mindfulness is the awareness that comes through purposefully paying attention to the present moment without judgment. There is some evidence that engaging in mindfulness may help improve a person’s experience of pain.

According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, “Mindfulness exercises help people to focus their mind and body in the moment without judgment. Daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic pain because sometimes there are negative or worrisome thoughts about the pain. These thoughts are normal, and can affect mood and increase pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body, noticing the breath and body sensations as being there just as they are, can help manage pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.”

Tai Chi

The Chinese martial art of Tai Chi is a system of calisthenics, involving sequences of very slow and controlled movements. Tai Chi is often used to help manage chronic pain symptoms.

According to a systematic review of the efficacy of Tai Chi for chronic pain, published in Scientific Reports, the authors write, “During Tai Chi exercises, the slow motion and weight shifting may improve musculoskeletal strength and joint stability.”

“Concentration and mindfulness meditation may modulate multiple aspects of health including mood, functions of the immune and autonomic nervous systems. Several trials have documented that Tai Chi demonstrated positive effects on chronic pain, and some reviews have maintained that Tai Chi showed some beneficial effects on chronic pain.”

The new review determined that Tai Chi achieved better gains in reducing chronic pain compared to the control interventions.


Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a flowering plant of the ginger family Zingiberaceae. The plant is a perennial, rhizomatous, herbaceous plant native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia and has a long history of use in traditional medicine. 

Research has shown that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, can benefit inflammation, pain, metabolic syndrome, and help in the management of inflammatory and degenerative eye conditions. Turmeric is also promoted as a dietary supplement for a variety of conditions, including arthritis, digestive disorders, respiratory infections, allergies, liver disease, depression, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Kratom Tea

For millennia, the local people of Southeast Asia have been cultivating the kratom tree (mitragyna speciosa) to benefit from its medicinal and recreational properties. In traditional use, rural populations would ingest kratom leaves to treat common medical problems, such as diarrhea, fever, cough, anxiety and pain and even used it as a wound poultice. It is still popular in Asian village communities during social gatherings. 

In a study, published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine (YJBM), researchers evaluated the previously reported beneficial effects of consuming kratom leaf preparations for pain. 

The study assessed changes in pain tolerance, other physiologic responses, and changes in potential withdrawal signs or symptoms during an initial discontinuation of kratom use followed by consumption of kratom or placebo concentrations in a controlled laboratory setting. The study enrolled participants experienced with kratom through their long-term, daily, habitual kratom consumption who were otherwise healthy.

The findings suggest that consuming a kratom drink increased pain tolerance among participants compared to control subjects. “Kratom decoction demonstrated a substantial and statistically significant increase in pain tolerance,” write the authors.

According to the authors, “A substantial amount of misinformation has been published in literature and disseminated in media reports, creating a misconception that kratom is simply a dangerous opioid. Kratom is a plant that contains many alkaloids and other potentially active substances.”

“These findings should be replicated in larger and more diverse samples to provide rigorous assessment of the observed effects. Extensive controlled studies are needed to fully evaluate currently debated potential beneficial and harmful effects of kratom and to determine its potential future therapeutic value for pain or other conditions. The study findings should not be interpreted as endorsing the use of kratom products for self-treatment of pain or other conditions,” write the authors.


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