Other treatment options include injections of steroids or other medications, nerve blocks that interrupt pain signals, physical therapy, alternative therapies, and psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, and guided imagery and other relaxation techniques. Acupuncture, which some people with pain find helpful, is thought to ease pain by raising the level of endorphins in the body, Christo says. "Endorphins are sort of like opioids. . . . They are natural pain relievers," he says. "They are released when the body experiences pain—when you sprain your ankle, cut your finger, in response to injury." Still, research offers conflicting conclusions about the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture. A review of 13 studies published last month in British Medical Journal found that acupuncture offered only a small level of pain relief for people with low-back pain, migraines, knee osteoarthritis, and postoperative pain.
Jennifer Phillips, 41, of Providence Forge, Va., saw 54 doctors before the fibromyalgia that caused her pain was diagnosed in 1996. Finally, after seeing an internist whose nurse had fibromyalgia, she found a routine that works for her: a combination of proper sleep (achieved, in part, using the tricylic antidepressant amitriptyline), daily supplements of vitamins, magnesium, and potassium, plenty of water, and a low-carb diet.
The search is on for greater relief. Studies are underway to look into the safety and effectiveness of alternative ways of delivering pain medications, such as an inhaled form of fentanyl that would get the drug into the patient's system more quickly. For older people who have fractures of the spine, vertebroplasty and kyphotlasty—two minimally invasive techniques in which bone cement is injected into the collapsed bone in the spine—can result in "significant pain reduction," Christo says. In the ongoing debate over how best to handle back pain, a study just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons finds that the most effective way to treat most degenerative disc disease cases is to combine physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medications, rather than having surgery.
While it may seem counterintuitive, people with chronic pain should try to get exercise. Experts say it's important to keep moving, both for the usual cardiovascular reasons and in order to avoid muscle atrophy. A supervised, individually designed exercise program, incorporating stretching or strengthening, may improve pain and functioning in people with chronic low-back pain, according to a 2005 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine . A physical therapist or personal trainer can offer the necessary advice. In fact, staying in bed for more than a day or two can make back pain worse, according to the National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus.
Jeff Nance of Indianapolis, whose chronic pain is caused by degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis of his lower back, recalls that he barely wanted to leave his home three years ago. Then he discovered the Meridian Health Group pain clinic in Indianapolis. Now he is working full time again, and he recently participated in an annual bike ride across the state of Indiana. Nance goes back to the clinic every few months for a check of his medications, and he sees a psychologist a couple of times a month. "What we try to do is really recognize that people can have pain for all kinds of reasons, [and we] find as many of those causes as possible and treat them in the most specific fashion as possible," says Michael Clark, associate professor and director of the Chronic Pain Treatment Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Ultimately, you'd like to get somebody well."