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Understanding Opioids

Beyond Opioids: Mind and Body Practices

A Personal Story

Diana Gray, a 73-year-old grandmother, practices the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi to reduce her chronic pain.
Photo: Terri Poindexter Smith

When asked recently by her doctor, “How would you rate your daily pain,” Diana Gray answered quickly, “What pain?” She breaks into laughter just talking about the exchange.

At 73, Gray has battled chronic pain—that is, pain that lasts a long time and can be hard to treat—for nearly 20 years. She was first diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the hip after a car accident left her feeling really old at age 55. A retired student affairs administrator, Gray longed for the days when she walked a mile to work every morning at the University of Chicago.

Research suggests that mindfulness meditation—paying close attention to the breath and body movements—reduces stress and produces a sense of well-being.

Along her pain journey, doctors prescribed opioids after two hip surgeries and a wrist surgery after a fall. “I can understand how people get addicted. It’s hard being in chronic pain,” Gray says. “It affects every part of your life. You can’t sleep. You gain weight. You get depressed.”

Recent research shows that some non-drug approaches—including mind and body practices such as tai chi and mindfulness meditation—can help some people with chronic pain feel better.

For example, a study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that tai chi, a traditional Chinese practice that combines meditation with deep breathing, relaxation, and gentle movements, was as effective as physical therapy. Tai chi may also lessen pain in people with fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes widespread pain, fatigue, and other symptoms.

Four mornings each week, Gray walks to a local park near her house to a tai chi class. On the other three mornings each week, she practices tai chi at home. She says she feels younger today than she did 10 years ago. “I was lucky that I didn’t like the way opioids made me feel,” Gray says. “Once the pain moved into my knees, it forced me to find another way to treat my pain.”

If, like Gray, you have chronic pain, you may want to talk with your health care provider about adding a mind and body approach to your treatment plan.

For low-back pain, several techniques—including mindfulness-based stress reduction, spinal manipulation, massage therapy, and yoga—have shown promise in NCCIH-sponsored research studies.

“I know that the slow and gentle movements of tai chi keep me feeling pain free,” Gray says. “I highly recommend it to anyone suffering from chronic pain.”

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Read More "Understanding Opioids" Articles

Understanding The Opioid Overdose Epidemic / Beyond Opioids: Mind and Body Practices

Fall 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 3 Page 15