Recent Advances in Treating Pain Without Pills


Allie Lemco Toren

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Pain is an epidemic. In the United States alone, about 100 million people suffer from acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) pain, costing our country billions in health care costs and missed workdays each year. In fact, chronic pain affects more Americans than heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined, according to the Institute of Medicine. However, existing pain treatments have drawbacks and aren’t always dependable—or safe. Pain-reducing medications are available, of course, but doctors tend to treat patients by trial and error and it can take time to find a treatment that works. And while that treatment may relieve pain effectively, most medications that treat pain come with significant side effects. But there’s good news: experts and researchers are introducing novel solutions to tackle the pain problem. Recent advances in pain relief have offered millions of people new, drug-free options.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

While the first modern transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit was patented in 1974, the products have recently become much more effective and accessible. A TENS unit is a small device that can offer effective pain relief for many different conditions. The device is attached to wires that connect to sticky pads, called electrodes. Patients stick these electrodes directly to their skin, and after turning the machine on, small electrical impulses are sent to the nerves associated with the painful area of the body. These mild electrical impulses are thought to interfere with the pain signals going to your spinal cord and brain, so you don’t feel pain as strongly, or at all. TENS units are also thought to relax muscles and stimulate the body to make more endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. The relief they provide is temporary—it lasts as long as the TENS unit is worn and turned on. But in general, a TENS unit is a safe and non-invasive option for reducing pain.

TENS units have been available by prescription for several years, but recently, new over-the-counter TENS units have come onto the market. Before using any TENS unit, however, make sure to consult your doctor. Don’t use TENS if you have any type of electrical or metal implant in your body, like a pacemaker. TENS is also not recommended for pregnant women, epileptics, and people with heart problems.

Radiofrequency Ablation

A radiofrequency ablation procedure, also known as a radiofrequency neurotomy, focuses on using radio waves to create heat and disrupt nerve fibers so pain cannot be transmitted. Using X-rays or computerized tomography (CT) imagery as a guide, the doctor will send radiofrequency current to the nerves in the painful area, destroying the nerve tissue so pain signals won’t be sent to the brain. This procedure is safe and non-surgical, so complications are rare. It may take two to three weeks to feel pain relief, but this relief can last from six weeks to a year, and sometimes even longer.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The last thing that people with chronic pain want to hear is, “it’s all in your head.” However, research has found that changing how you think about your pain can actually change how you experience it. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment that reduces pain and stress by helping patients identify the relationship between their pain and their actions. The general idea with CBT is that negative thoughts and behaviors can contribute to negative feelings and reactions, which in turn can increase sensitivity to pain. CBT techniques center around the goals of improving coping skills, increasing confidence, and empowering patients to feel in control of their pain. And these techniques really work: we know that people with chronic pain have less gray matter in areas of the brain related to pain, and studies have shown that after CBT, gray matter increases in these areas. Researchers believe this change reflects an improvement in the patient’s ability to assess and manage pain.

Talk to Your Doctor

Since pain is such a common problem, recently there’s been more and more support for developing effective and safe pain relief therapies. In the last few years, there’s been an especially strong push for rethinking how we tackle pain—in 2011, the Institute of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health called for a “cultural transformation” in pain prevention and treatment. We’re just now beginning to see the fruits of that mission. If you’re not satisfied with your pain treatment, it’s important to talk to your doctor about your options. Sometimes medications are the right solution, but it may help to consider new alternatives.


5 Tips for Purchasing a TENS Unit

Because there are several types of TENS units available for purchase, it helps to do some research before purchasing one.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 17, 2016

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