Looking Outside of the Box

Recent news reports have noted the benefits of Tai Chi for arthritis knee pain as well as the mental and physical health benefits of yoga. What is noteworthy about these studies is the message that there are benefits to looking outside the box – outside of Western medicine or what Americans typically think of when considering healthcare. So often we want pills, or at least quick fixes that require little effort or change on our part.

If you’ve been following this blog, it should be no surprise that treatments such as yoga and Tai Chi appeal to me – I champion the idea that patients feel better about results that they bring upon themselves. I use variations of many Eastern medicine techniques in my practice (e.g., mindfulness) and have referred many for Reiki therapy, Tai Chi, acupuncture, and so on. (I actually hope to have an article written by a local Traditional Chinese Medicine provider to post to this site – outlining the utility of herbal remedies, acupuncture, and the like.)

Let me state for the record that my philosophy on pain management is this: if it doesn’t hurt you physically, financially, or emotionally, why not give it a shot? Pain is a multifaceted and individualistic experience, and I so rarely see patients find total pain relief via one treatment avenue (e.g., just medicine alone). So, as long as you are not shelling out money on obvious scams or picking up new and dangerous habits, then the more diverse the treatments, the better (most times). Almost any major publication addressing pain treatment will note the need multidisciplinary care – including physicians, pharmacists, psychologists, physical therapists, and more. I often include spiritual guides and psychiatrists in this mix, and also practitioners of Eastern medicine or movement therapy (e.g., Tai Chi, yoga, etc). Just remember to tell all of your providers about one another – if your psychiatrist doesn’t know what herbal treatments you are using, dangerous drug interactions can result.

Another important factor to remember, regardless of the treatment avenue taken, is that pain is largely a function of perception – meaning, the physical injury is a fact, but the pain experienced is affected by your mood, your level of activity, your degree of attention to the pain, and so on. So it should be clear that your interpretation of events plays a big role. Add to that the idea of placebo effects – that our minds can cause physical or psychological changes beyond what the physical medicine can account for – and you have to factor in a person’s belief in the treatment they are receiving. Whether Western or Eastern, spiritual or physical, treatments work better when patients think they will work, or at least have faith in the provider that s/he has confidence that the treatment will be effective.

Note that, religious views aside, I use the word faith in the prior paragraph intentionally. While I have blogged earlier about the pros and cons of scientifically validated treatments, the bottom line is that proof of effectiveness is always desirable. However, that proof may not be gotten in a lab or through rigorous testing – it needs to be proof that you improve with treatment. Whether it was prayer, herbs, opiates, psychotherapy, or physical therapy that lessened your pain isn’t the issue – so long as you get better. So reaching outside of your comfort zone (within reason) is worth some consideration. The key is to know when to have faith, and when to accept that your faith was unfounded and move on to another treatment avenue. I try to be up front and honest with patients in saying that I want to help, I know ways to help, but if what I provide isn’t effective, I need to know so we can try a different approach or I can refer you elsewhere. You shouldn’t be afraid of saying the following to any professional treating you – “Sorry, but I tried the BLANK you suggested and I don’t feel any better. Can we try something else?”

The take home message here should be this – don’t be afraid of seeking pain remedies outside of mainstream Western medicine, or exploring treatments/activities such as Tai Chi. I hate to think that the answer to your pain problem is out there and you wouldn’t take advantage of it because it seems “weird” or outside of the norm. Consider this – talk therapy seems fringe to some people, even though the idea of confession or seeking advice is quite common in all parts of the world. Like your pain, treatment is all a matter of perception – what is tolerable to one person may be too much for another to handle. However, if there is a chance you’ll see even a slight improvement in your well-being, I say have a little faith, keep an open mind, and look outside of the box.

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