At a recent men’s health seminar, I listened to a talk on the false promises of back surgery. The speaker, a Harvard physician and researcher, referred to spinal fusion surgery in particular as the “poster child” for expensive, risky, and unnecessary surgery. “Based on the evidence,” he said, “the indications for fusion are few and far between but that doesn’t stop surgeons from doing them or patients from getting them.”
Optimal health begins with personal responsibility. The first piece of that is doing what you can to prevent a diagnosis. Like modifying your workout to prevent your cartilage from breaking down and wearing away. And switching to an anti-inflammatory diet before those aches and pains worsen. Own your decisions, accept that the activities you engage in and the food you choose to put in your body have an impact on your health, both short- and long-term. Stop blaming bad luck, faulty DNA, corporate America, etc. Once you’ve got an issue, a sense of personal responsibility – and open-mindedness – will empower you to explore all available options. If you can spend 20 minutes on Facebook, you can spend 20 minutes researching non-surgical interventions for damaged disks and spinal stenosis. If you’ve got a sore neck, look into exercises that may reduce future flare-ups. For arthritic hands, a hand therapist could help you avoid a potentially risky steroid shot.
At this moment, I have nearly a dozen clients who have opted to forgo surgery. Rotator cuff surgery. Back surgery. Neck surgery. Knee surgery. Instead, they’ve chosen alternative modalities like physical therapy, tai chi, yoga, acupuncture, and chiropractic care. For most, it’s been years since they defied their doctors and in every case they are doing things those experts swore they’d never be able to. Interestingly, surveys of doctors typically show that at least half would refuse to undergo many of the treatments they recommend for their patients.
The abdication of personal responsibility is perhaps most embodied by our blind reliance on drugs. If you’re one of the millions of Americans who robotically pops Advil, Aleve or prescription painkillers each day, you’re increasing your risk of heart and kidney failure, ulcers, and internal bleeding.
FACT: Acetaminophen overdose is the #1 cause of acute liver failure in the U.S.
FACT: Each year 16,000 Americans die from the side effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
FACT: Roughly 55,000 Americans die each year from taking COX-2 inhibitors like Vioxx or Bextra.
Before you reach for conventional pain relievers, consider these natural remedies to address both acute, exercise-induced discomfort as well as pain caused by chronic and degenerative conditions. It might take longer to notice a benefit and it may require some trial-and-error but, in many cases, the results are on par or superior to that which you can expect from prescription medications – without the side effects. As an added bonus, these strategies will also help with weight management and disease prevention:
- Eat more berries. They contain a class of antioxidants known as anthocyanins, which reduce inflammation and pain. Inflammation has been linked to tissue swelling, pressure on the nerves, and decreased circulation. Cherries in particular have been shown to be more effective than aspirin. Roughly 100 professional and collegiate sports teams in the United states have their athletes drinking tart cherry juice, according to sports medicine experts. Montmorency is the variety of tart cherry most commonly grown in the United States, and what scientists use in their research.
- Give up sugar. Aside from increasing your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, excess sugar in the diet can increase pain. Sugar leads to the production of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), which trigger systemic inflammation throughout the body. AGEs, a protein bound to a glucose molecule, resulting in damaged, cross linked proteins. As the body tries to break these AGEs apart, immune cells secrete inflammatory messengers called cytokines. Simple carbohydrates like bread and rice are rapidly converted to glucose and can produce similar effects. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, processed sugars and other high-glycemic starches increase inflammation, which causes pain, swelling, redness, and overheating. Using gentler cooking methods can also help reduce the production of AGEs.
- Cut back on booze. Alcohol irritates the intestinal lining, which allows bacteria to pass into the bloodstream. A common cause of gout, which is a condition that causes inflammation of the joints due to the build-up of crystals of uric acid, is strongly linked to heavy drinking. Gout is mostly an inherited condition but can be exacerbated by alcohol. Long-term alcohol use can also lead to inflammation of the nerves in the arms and legs, resulting in symptoms such as tingling, pain, and spasms. Heavy drinking can lead to a condition called alcoholic myositis, which is inflammation of the muscles, primarily in the shoulders and chest.
- Use olive oil. It contains a substance called oleocanthol, which inhibits the inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. Olive oil also leads to lower levels of prostaglandins, the pain-causing neurotransmitters that aspirinblocks. Look for a high-phenolic brand like The Governor.
- Eat more fish. The omega-3s they contain are anti-inflammatory. Each week, aim to consume several servings of fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and trout. Those who do usually report improved morning stiffness and joint tenderness.
- Supplement… wisely. I’m talking about safe, well-researched products from reputable companies whose supplements have been independently tested and verified for purity and potency. SAM-e, glucosamine sulfate, MSM, willow bark and boswellia, for example, have all been shown to be as effective as conventional painkillers at treating arthritis. If you are buying American supplements, choose those that have a quality certification from a third-party agency. These include Informed Choice, NSF International and the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP).
Pain meds and surgery have their place, but when we resolve to be educated consumers and active participants in determining our health wellness we’re often rewarded with improved quality of life and more money in our pockets.