The Seekers Centre has been providing integrative chronic pain management since its inception in 2006. Integrative Medicine is an approach to healthcare that treats the whole person and engages the patient to become a partner in their healing. Integrative physicians help patients manage their symptoms, but we also try to reduce physical, emotional and environmental stressors that can help unleash the innate healing ability of the body. In addition to drugs and surgery, we incorporate nutrition and exercise, herbs and vitamins, acupuncture and manual therapies, mindfulness and energy-based healing, and other approaches.
These are called Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies because they are not routinely used in clinics and hospital, but they offer tremendous potential for improving the lives of millions of people with chronic diseases. Most integrative treatments are safe and cheap, many are wildly popular with patients, and medical doctors are already using some of them. Integrative medicine is a new paradigm that has become a buzzword, and it will be the next quantum leap in healthcare.
No one needs integrative medicine more than people who suffer with chronic pain. A recent Canadian study found that more than half of chronic pain sufferers experience severe depression, with more than a third having thoughts of suicide. Their pain interferes with sleep, prevents them from working, impacts their relationships with their families and friends and interferes with simple daily activities like housework and bathing. Chronic pain worsens quality of life more than any other chronic disease – even more than cancer.
Pain doesn’t just affect individuals. It affects families, communities, workplaces and our society as a whole. Many chronic diseases affect life expectancy, and many cause suffering, but nothing changes a person’s life more than persistent pain. Pain affects our ability to think clearly and to enjoy positive emotions. In most cases, it is invisible to others, making it difficult for them to understand and sympathize. To make matters worse, chronic pain sufferers are sometimes accused of being weak or lazy, of pretending or exaggerating their symptoms. Even friends and loved ones can eventually become frustrated or impatient, making victims feel even more isolated, angry and depressed.
When it comes to treating chronic pain, modern medicine needs all the help it can get. Even acute pain, for which we have good medicines, is under-treated. Doctors under-treat pain because they don’t learn enough about it, with veterinary students getting five times more pain education than medical students. When it is prescribed, it is under-used; hospital staff only give about 30% of prescribed pain-killers after surgery.
Pain is also an under-funded area of research. Even though it affects over 10% of the population, it receives less than 0.25% of the total funding for health research in Canada. This may be due in part to the physical and mental challenges that prevent pain sufferers from fundraising the way cancer survivors and heart patients do. There are few chronic pain survivors, as most patients struggle with their pain for the rest of their lives. It affects their physical and mental energy, impairing memory and concentration.
While cutting-edge research is important, there are many simple treatments for chronic pain that are being neglected by healthcare systems around the world. The simplest approach is to remain active, but many patients never get this advice and avoid activity due to fear of movement. Cognitive-behavioural therapy helps patients learn to observe the negative thoughts and feelings that are triggered by pain, but most doctors are not trained in this simple approach.
Other integrative treatments have great potential to help solve this crisis, but for some reason they are not part of our healthcare system. Chiropractic and acupuncture are the most widely used treatments for pain, but are only available to those with private insurance. Natural remedies like devil’s claw, ginger, B vitamins and magnesium have shown potential in small trials, and are worth trying when pain persists. Mindfulness-based treatments like breathing, relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga and qigong can heal the mind, reducing the suffering that pain brings. They are truly effective, but sufferers don’t learn about them unless they do their own seeking.
I am unconventional because my advice is different from that of most chronic pain physicians. I don’t tell our patients that they will have to learn to live with their pain, because I believe that it can be overcome. In some cases it takes years, but sometimes we uncover a key that solves the puzzle. Different treatments have worked for different people, but when chronic pain disappears it seems like a miracle. There are no miracles, but there are ways to connect the dots of a person’s symptoms that are not known to modern medicine.
The most significant discovery of my career is actually thousands of years old. What I call the blockage theory of disease is described in ancient texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I have worked with healers from around the world who treat blockages. They are areas where prior injury or trauma has damaged fascia and made nerves sensitive.
These invisible scars in the nervous system can be felt with the hands, thanks to nerve endings that detect vibration. It is not voodoo. It is science. And it is a breakthrough that is waiting to be discovered. I believe that treating blockages can transform healthcare, and I have dedicated my life to helping to make that happen.
No one should have to live in pain and suffering. What we call chronic diseases are the puzzles we have not yet solved. Healing is possible, so keep seeking.