The advice doctors aren’t giving chronic pain sufferers

If you or a loved one suffers from chronic pain, pay close attention to today’s message. It might save you from making a choice that can hurt more than it helps.

As I’ve mentioned, last year I endured five back-to-back, lifesaving abdominal surgeries. I spent half of 2019 in considerable pain as I recovered.

Of course, when I was in the ICU, high-grade pain killers were necessary immediately following each one of my surgeries. But as soon I was able, I rejected the use of opioid drugs. I wasn’t willing to put myself at risk for the dangerous side effects or potential for addiction while I healed.

And perhaps the most helpful solution in alleviating my post-surgical pain came from a very unlikely source. I’ll get to that in just a minute. But first, there’s something I need to get off my chest…

Mainstream medicine’s dangerous mentality

During my long stay in the hospital, I noticed one thing in particular. One thing that is most certainly contributing to our country’s devastating opioid epidemic…

Right before I was cleared to go home, not a single one of my care providers suggested a non-prescription alternative for managing my post-op pain.

Nearly everyone I spoke to was so quick to pull out their pen and paper to write me a prescription for an opioid. In fact, the only time natural, non-drug interventions came up was when I asked about them!

To me, this seems a little backward…

Shouldn’t doctors suggest natural—or at least non-addictive—treatments before resorting to prescription pain killers?

As I was getting ready to leave my hospital room, my discharge nurse told me, “Make sure you try to walk as often as you can, eat lots of protein, and get plenty of sleep.”

Don’t get me wrong… I’m extremely grateful for the doctors and medical staff who helped save my life. And this was good advice, but in hindsight, I feel like it was a little incomplete.

For instance, I wish I had been told about what can trigger or amplify pain. (Spoiler alert: it’s stress!)

But the fact is, when I rejected opioids, I was pretty much left to my own devices when it came to dealing with my pain. As a result, I had no real pain management plan in place when I got home from the hospital.

And I certainly needed one. I quickly realized just how many times the human body engages its core muscles. I could feel everything—even with the smallest of movements.

Whether I was climbing out of bed, getting dressed, washing my hair, sitting down, or standing up… just about every move I made was excruciating.

So for the first part of my recovery, I opted for over-the-counter pain medication to keep the swelling and inflammation down, and relied on high-quality, full-spectrum hemp CBD for additional pain relief.

But I knew, surely, there had to be other strategies I could add to my pain management toolbox that could help further ease my pain. So I did a little research on my own…

And to my delight, I found some cutting-edge research on music’s ability to alleviate various types of pain.

Study after study says music drowns out pain

In a 2017 meta-analysis, a significant number of study participants reported that music made a notable difference in reducing chronic pain and depressive symptoms linked to their pain. Additionally, researchers found that music had a greater effect when selected by the patient.

In another meta-analysis, published in 2016, researchers found that music helped patients significantly:

  • Alleviate pain
  • Decrease opioid use
  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • Reduce emotional distress from pain

The researchers concluded that music interventions can provide “an effective complementary approach” in relieving acute, chronic, and surgical pain.

Sadly, despite all of the science on music’s ties to pain relief, I doubt it will make its way into post-surgical discharge protocols any time soon. But that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate it on your own…

How music helped me heal

After my operations, I had to learn how to move again so that I wouldn’t hurt myself or pop a stitch. And as I faced these challenges, James Brown and Bob Marley became two of my most reliable companions—and, as it turns out, the best kind of medicine.

Their music turned out to be just the thing I needed to take my mind off the excruciating pain that accompanied every small step I was able to muster. It also helped me relax, releasing the tension and pressure from my sore muscles and in the areas around my stitches.

And it helped me envision myself back on stage again, singing and playing music, which served as a huge source of motivation, especially on tough days.

I kept at it, and added more songs to my “physical therapy playlist” as my endurance increased. Little by little, I started regaining my strength, my circulation improved, and my wounds began to heal.

Eventually, I was able to walk in time with the beat of the songs I was listening to.

And even though I’ve known for years about the therapeutic benefits of music, I’ll admit even I was surprised at just how quickly it helped me heal.

Today, not only am I completely back on my feet, but I’m back onstage performing again. I’ve got to admit, music helped me heal emotionally through this ordeal, just as much as it helped me heal physically early on. I’m so grateful for it.

jim donovan rusted root
After my surgery (on left) just over a year ago, and me recently (on right), after a jog. IMAGE SOURCE: Jim Donovan

When you think about it, music is the world’s oldest medicine. And it can help heal us in a variety of ways—not just pain. (There’s a reason why cultures worldwide have used it for eons!)

If you’ve never tried incorporating music into your life as a healing tool, I encourage you to give it a shot. You’ve got nothing to lose—and everything to gain.

P.S. If you have used music as part of a healing regimen, I’d love to hear all about it. Just drop me a line on Facebook or Instagram.


SOURCES:

Garza-Villarreal, E., Pando, V., Vuust, P., and Parsons, C. (2017). Music-Induced Analgesia in Chronic Pain Conditions: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Pain Physician. 20(7): pp. 597 – 610. Retrieved from: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29149141-music-induced-analgesia-in-chronic-pain-conditions-a-systematic-review-and-meta-analysis/

Lee, J. (2016). The Effects of Music on Pain: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Music Therapy. 53(4): pp. 430 – 477. Retrieved from: academic.oup.com/jmt/article-abstract/53/4/430/2348275

Metcalf, C., et al. (2019). Music-Enhanced Analgesia and Antiseizure Activities in Animal Models of Pain and Epilepsy: Toward Preclinical Studies Supporting Development of Digital Therapeutics and Their Combinations With Pharmaceutical Drugs. Frontiers in Neurology. Retrieved from: frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2019.00277/full

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.