5 Pain Hotspots—and Why You Can't Find Relief
You're doing what you can to feel better, but you might not realize there are more effective ways to cope.
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The Pain: Tension Headaches
You tried: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
Likely mistake: You took too many for too long, leading to side effects like rebound headaches or problems with your gastrointestinal system (ibuprofen) or liver (acetaminophen).
Get the most out of your treatment: Ibuprofen and acetaminophen affect people differently, but both have been shown to be effective remedies for ordinary tension headaches. The problem comes when they work too well...and you stop counting pills and start popping handfuls. If you're using these meds for longer than a couple of weeks, limit your dose to 2,500 mg a day (under a physician's supervision) says Lynn R. Webster, MD, medical director and founder of Lifetree Clinical Research & Pain Clinic and president-elect for the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
Keep in mind: Can't decide which one to take? Try both. Webster says alternating your use of ibuprofen and acetaminophen can lower the risks of side effects from taking just one.
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The Pain: Lower Backaches
You tried: Acupuncture
Likely mistake: You weren't convinced it would work, and after two disappointing visits, you never went back.
Get the most out of your treatment: Small studies showed that acupuncture could boost the effectiveness of conventional treatments; a larger study published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that it could be even more effective than conventional treatments at relieving chronic low-back pain—but so could a "sham" technique involving toothpicks. And then there are several-centuries-worth of satisfied Chinese patients. Two things seem to work in acupuncture's favor, says Larry R. Bergstrom, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine program at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona: a non-anxious receptiveness to the treatment, as well as a commitment to multiple visits.
Keep in mind: Western practitioners tend to use needles to address a specific problem, theorizing that this treatment works in part by stimulating the release of endorphins and activating nerves to interrupt pain signals. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the needles relieve blockages in the body's pathways and restore the general flow of energy. Try both approaches to see what works best for you.
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The Pain: Joint Disorders (Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis)
You tried: Exercise
Likely mistake: You have a really hard time motivating yourself to get out the door when your joints are aching.
Get the most out of your treatment: Here's the thing with exercise and arthritis, says Bergstrom: it's going to involve some discomfort, but it's worth it (as long as the pain is not intense). "Exercise strengthens the muscles and tendons that support the joints, which helps hold the body in proper alignment," he says. It also improves blood flow to the affected area to speed healing. Keep in mind that even when walking seems like the last thing you feel like doing, Bergstrom says it will distract your brain from your arthritis pain, making you feel better than if you stayed on the couch. Lighten the impact on your joints by walking on trails or grass, using the elliptical machine or doing exercises in a pool.
Keep in mind: The herbal remedy devil's claw, taken orally in powdered form, has been shown to help decrease osteoarthritis-related pain when combined with ibuprofen and even on its own. While it's not known for sure how devil's claw works, Bergstrom says the hypothesis is that it decreases inflammation.
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The Pain: Muscular
You tried: Yoga
Likely mistake: You tried to match up a pose with your pain.
Get the most out of your treatment: We all know that yoga has great physical benefits, like improving flexibility and stretching tight muscles. But the mind-body benefits of a regular practice, like focusing on your breathing and being present in the moment, are more helpful in the management of chronic pain than figuring out what move stretches your hamstrings, says Bergstrom. Yoga also relieves stress, and a relaxed state makes you less sensitive to pain. Bergstrom suggests trying Hatha and Iyengar practices, which tend to be less intense.
Keep in mind: If holding static poses forces you to put too much weight on your sore muscles, or if the moves feel so uncomfortable that you're gritting your teeth to get through them, Bergstrom suggests tai chi, which involves moving slowly throughout different poses. You'll still improve flexibility, balance and coordination, but you're less likely to get stuck in one pain-aggravating position for too long.
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The Pain: Menstrual Cramps
You tried: You've probably found that ibuprofen or Motrin IB (both referred to by docs as NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) will help the pain—but you may not understand why this is. They block the pathways for chemicals called prostaglandins that cause contractions of the uterus, says Michele Curtis, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Texas at Houston (by the way, Curtis says that those painful contractions some women feel during their period can be as intense as the ones other women feel during labor—so never again feel guilty about calling in crampy). NSAIDs not only relieve the pain, but also decrease the force of the contractions.
Likely mistake: Waiting to take a pill until you're practically doubled over. By this time, says Curtis, you have to play catch-up to get enough medication in your system to feel a difference. Next month, try taking NSAIDs 1-2 days before your period is due. If you suffer from serious cramps, Curtis suggests bumping up the dose to what she calls a therapeutic level of 800 mg every eight hours.
Keep in mind: Those at risk of GI or heart issues may want to lay off the ibuprofen (maybe you've already been taking it for a sport injury); some studies have shown that 200-500 mg of Vitamin E can help lower menstrual pain when taken two days before your period starts.