by Jane Gatanis and Alyssa Frey
How to stop pain naturally: cure chronic pain--from back pain to headaches--with this simple plan that targets both your body and your mind.
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If you suffer from chronic pain, you know how difficult it can be to find relief. But two licensed occupational therapists in New York City, Jane Gatanis and Alyssa Frey, say they can show you how to cure your pain naturally with an innovative plan that combines mind-body techniques and traditional physical rehabilitation.
Gatanis and Frey began developing their program in 1996 while working in the rehabilitation department at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, where part of their job was to study complementary approaches to chronic pain. Soon they found themselves successfully treating some of the hospital's most difficult-to-resolve cases of chronic pain.
Their methods work, they say, because they address a contributing factor of pain that so many doctors and patients ignore: emotions. "I have come to believe that about 95 percent of chronic pain has an emotional component," says Gatanis. "Emotions and stress can either initiate the pain or exacerbate it."
Russell Portenoy, M.D., chairman of the department of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center and a leading expert on pain, supports their program. "There is actually more scientific evidence that mind-body approaches can be useful for pain than there is for most of the drugs we prescribe," he says.
Gatanis and Frey now work in their own clinic in New York City, Integrative Rehab, and what follows is the program they give their patients to practice at home. It can help all types of chronic pain; however, the acupressure points outlined in "Release Potent Energy," page 74, are specifically for back pain, headaches, and neck pain (the most common complaints among their patients).
Practice the program daily. If you do all the exercises consecutively, it takes 30 to 60 minutes (but you can break them up if you like). Depending on the complexity of your pain, you may begin to feel relief in a few weeks or it may take as long as three months.
Fix Bad Posture ∞
Poor posture can play a major role in chronic pain, causing tension along your spine that can make your neck, shoulders, back, and legs hurt, say Gatanis and Frey. It also restricts your breathing, reducing the circulation of the blood and oxygen your body needs to resolve inflammation and tension in your musculoskeletal system.
The Body Alignment Exercise, which you can perform in less than one minute, realigns your posture and deepens your breathing, say Gatanis and Frey. But it does more than physically correct your posture. Repeated practice of this exercise will teach you to pay attention to specific parts of your body and make you aware of how each part feels--an important step for pain sufferers, who often try to forget that those aching parts exist.
At first, do this exercise five times a day for two weeks. Later, use it two or three times per day. You can do this exercise almost anywhere, like while waiting in line at the supermarket.
- Start with your feet firmly planted, about 6 inches apart. Make sure your ankles are parallel to each other and your kneecaps are facing front. Don't lock your knees; keep them slightly bent. Try to keep your weight equally distributed: Imagine that your big toe, little toe, and heel are the three legs of a stool that bears your weight evenly.
- Place your arms at your sides with your palms facing forward; this position rotates your arms so that your chest is more open.
- Use your lower abdominal muscles to gently pull your belly up and in. Your abdomen should flatten only slightly; don't shift the position of your lower back dramatically. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds while breathing normally.
- Drop your shoulders down and back, and lift your chest slightly upward.
- Imagine that your head is floating over your spine. Move your chin in slightly toward your neck and chest. Picture your upper spine lengthening.
Breathe in deeply for 5 counts, and exhale for 5 counts; as you inhale, relax your upper abdominal muscles so the lower portions of your lungs fill with air.
Release Potent Energy ∞
Acupressure, a self-care technique, involves using your hands to apply pressure to specific energy points on your body. It's similar to acupuncture but without the needles. According to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, manipulating these energy points frees blocked qi (or life energy), helping your body to heal. While much is still unknown about these points, researchers have found that acupuncture is an effective remedy for the discomfort of ailments like low back pain and headaches.
These three acupressure exercises are for chronic back pain, headaches, and neck pain. For information on acupressure for other types of pain, Gatanis and Frey recommend Acupressure's Potent Points: A Guide to Self-Care for Common Ailments (Bantam, 1990) by Michael Reed Gach. Practice these exercises daily.
For Back Pain ∞
- Lie on your back on the floor on a comfortable surface, either on a rug or a mat, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
Make two fists and place them, knuckles up, under your back, just above your waistline and about an inch from either side of your spine. Let your knuckles settle into your muscles and apply gentle, sustained pressure. Breathe deeply, counting to 5 as you inhale and again to 5 as you exhale. Do this exercise for 3 minutes.
For Headaches ∞
- Using the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, pinch the muscle mass between your left thumb and forefinger, near the bottom knuckle of your left forefinger.
- Pinch this point as hard as you can, applying deep pressure, for 15 to 30 seconds. Slowly release.
Repeat on the right hand.
For Neck Pain ∞
- Sit and look straight ahead. Press your fingertips on the muscles at the back of your neck so your fingertips are parallel to your spine and about an inch from either side of it. Breathe deeply, inhaling and exhaling for 5 counts each. Repeat 2 or 3 times.
- On your next inhalation, gently tilt your head backward about 45 degrees, keeping your fingertips in place. Exhale and bring your head forward about 45 degrees in the opposite direction.
Repeat 2 or 3 more times.
Create Space for Your Pain ∞
Oatanis and Frey teach their patients to use meditation combined with visualization to think less negatively about their pain. They say pain sufferers tend to condemn the painful parts of their body, which increases their mental distress and muscular tension.
"We teach our clients to approach their pain with curious and caring intention, not anger and blame," says Gatanis. The following meditation not only loosens the mental and physical tensions around body parts that hurt, but it can also increase circulation, bringing oxygen and other nutrients needed for healing to tense areas. Practice this meditation for 10 to 15 minutes every day. Then follow it with the "Talk to Your Pain" section of the program, below.
- Sit in a quiet place and think about which part of your body holds stress or pain.
- Slowly inhale and imagine space and light around the pain; let the pain float freely in this space and light.
- As you slowly exhale, make an "ahhh" sound and gently move the painful part of your body in tiny increments.
- Continue slowly inhaling and exhaling, and on each exhalation move the painful area in a different direction. Pay attention to whether any of these movements ease the pain. As you explore your pain, imagine the space around it growing larger.
Don't pressure your pain to go away or get into a struggle with it. Just continue visualizing it floating in space and light.
Talk to Your Pain ∞
As strange as it may sound at first, talking with your pain can help you understand issues and emotions that may be causing or exacerbating it. "Your pain can hold information about the mysteries of why it's there," says Gatanis.
This exercise works best if you are relaxed, so practice it after you finish the "Create Space for Your Pain" section of the program, above. Your goal is to allow a free flow of thoughts and feelings, bringing a compassionate, curious, healing intention to this process. Don't worry if at first you don't get answers. It may take several tries before you feel relaxed and comfortable enough to listen to your pain. But keep practicing daily.
Start by thinking of yourself as a hospitable host, inviting a guest (your pain) in for tea. After you make your pain feel as welcome as possible, ask it the following questions. You do not need to write any of this down (although writing in a journal helps some people). Simply talk, either aloud or to yourself.
- Ask your pain: "How did you get here?" Invite your pain to answer. The response may come in any form--as a voice, a shape, an image, a memory. It may be concrete or intuitive. Open your senses and feelings to whatever answers your pain gives.
- Ask: "Did something emotionally upsetting happen just before you first affected me?" Listen to the answer.
Finally, ask: "Is there something you need from me so I can make peace with you?" Listen to the answer.
Calm Your Nervous System ∞
Craniosacral therapy releases restrictions in the bones, tissues, and fluid that surround and protect your brain and spinal cord, together known as the craniosacral system. Structural misalignments and energy imbalances in this system can contribute to chronic pain, say Gatanis and Frey, and craniosacral therapy can help by calming your central nervous system and relaxing muscular tensions. Gatanis and Frey studied the meningeal approach to craniosacral therapy, which osteopathic physician John Upledger developed following studies he conducted from 1975 to 1982 as a researcher and professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
To strengthen your craniosacral system, Gatanis and Frey recommend using a still-point inducer, a small rubber device developed by Upledger. It costs about $15, and you can order it by contacting the International Alliance of Healthcare Educators (800-311-9204; www.iahe.com). Do not use this device if you have or have had an acute stroke, cerebral aneurysm, brain tumor, recent skull fracture, or any other condition in which fluid pressure changes within the skull. Practice the following once a day:
- Lie on your back on the floor, either on a rug or on a mat.
- Place the still-point inducer under your head, in line with your ears, 1 to 1 1/2 inches above the junction of your neck and skull.
- Allow your head to rest on the still-point inducer. Close your eyes and relax.
Remain in this position for 10 to 15 minutes, using the time to breathe deeply or to practice whichever form of relaxation (like meditation or guided imagery) works best for you.
Related Article: How one woman overcame pain ∞
Betsy Smith, 55 New York City
When Smith (name changed upon request) got off the bus on September 11, 2001, she looked up and saw what everyone was screaming about: a huge gash spewing smoke and flames from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. She ran into her office at a firm across the street from what is now Ground Zero and joined her co-workers in front of the television. But after the second plane hit the South Tower, she fled on foot to her apartment. On her way she kept turning to look back. She saw people jumping from the buildings and watched both buildings collapse.
Several days later, Smith developed chronic neck pain and a constant headache that did not yield to aspirin. Five two-hour sessions of Swedish massage and shiatsu (a kind of massage using acupressure) didn't help either.
Three months later, and still in continuous pain, Smith sought help at Integrative Rehab, a physical rehabilitation center in New York City founded by occupational therapists Jane Gatanis and Alyssa Frey. In addition to receiving treatments at the clinic, Smith followed the self-help program developed by Gatanis and Frey that combines mind. body techniques and physical exercises and is described in this article.
Smith faithfully practiced the program daily. Within weeks she noticed a "small shift that reinforced me to stick with it," she says. Within three months she felt significant improvement, and less than a year after her pain began it was completely gone. The program also improved Smith's posture, helped her relax, and allowed her to understand that her physical discomfort was linked to her traumatic experiences on 9/11.
Henry Dreher is a New York City-based health writer specializing in mind-body and integrative medicine. Since he was treated at Integrative Rehab, his chronic headaches are mostly a bad memory.
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