Alternative Pain therapies: are they realistic?

Pain is a symptom, often a very strong symptom. It is a personal experience, and is influenced by all that we have learned and experienced, culturally and in our upbringing. While pharmaceutical drugs are powerful and can provide rapid pain relief, they often have side-effects when used in the long term. Dr David Nye describes some alternative therapies.

Pain is both a physical and a psychological experience. Only you can measure your own pain; there is no medical or scientific way to quantify someone else’s. The way you sense pain is also influenced by the degree of anxiety associated with it. Knowing why the pain is there, or its underlying cause, helps reduce anxiety and thus the severity of the perception of the pain. Acute pain is usually a danger warning, which can lead to further injury if ignored. Conventional medicine often deals effectively with symptoms, but unless the underlying cause is recognised and dealt with, further harm can arise.

The price of using conventional painkillers is often unpleasant side-effects. Natural medicine focuses on healing, and with healing the pain reduces, but it may not provide as rapid relief as conventional painkillers.

If the pain is so severe that it is debilitating, it may be prudent to use conventional painkillers sparingly and for a short time, until the natural healing provides relief.


Acute pain is often self-limiting, resulting from tissue injury (trauma or surgery), inflammation or illness. Chronic pain is less well defined and may cause suffering for many years, often leading to depression. It seldom responds to a single ‘magic bullet’ approach, and usually requires the use of several modalities. Pain may be the number one reason why people use alternative medicine.¹

The main principles of chronic pain relief can be remembered with the mnemonic SHIN

S = sleep 8 – 9 hours a night for adequate tissue repair.

H = hormonal support. Hormone levels may be sub-optimal in spite of normal laboratory tests.

I = infection, inflammation or impingement (pressure on nerves by growths), including heavy metal and chemical toxicity and mechanical, situational, physical or psychological stresses, need to be addressed.

N = nutritional support. Optimal nutrition, often well above RDA levels, is critical for healing and tissue repair.

Nutritional measures should include minimising animal fat intake, as this converts to arachidonic acids, prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which are largely responsible for promoting inflammatory processes in the body. Inflammation is a major cause of chronic pain. These inflammatory chemicals can be greatly reduced by increasing intake of omega-3 oils from cold-water fish or krill. In addition to eating oily fish such as sardines, pilchards and herring twice a week, you should take a daily large dose of pharmaceutical grade omega-3 oil capsules (3 000 – 9 000 mg EPA). Beware of eating too much salmon or tuna, or consuming their oils, as they are a potential source of mercury intoxication. Also beware of instant coffee, which has been found to contain substances that block the receptor sites used by our natural pain-killing endorphins, making pain seem more intense.

When the four areas of SHIN have been addressed, the cause of the pain will often have been eliminated, and it may simply disappear. If additional treatment is required, one or more of the following measures could be considered.


Acupuncture has been round, relatively unchanged, for more than 5 00 years, as part of traditional Chinese medicine. It is based on the principle that, in a healthy body, the Chi (sometimes spelled Qi) or energy circulates without interruption throughout the body. In situations of pain, trauma or illness, the flow of Chi becomes stagnant or obstructed. The aim of acupuncture is to manipulate this energy flow via acupuncture points under the skin. This can be achieved by means of acupuncture needles, soft laser, pressure, heat or magnets. An even stronger effect can be achieved by running a small electric current through the needles, known as electro-acupuncture.

Acupuncture has been shown to affect the release of endorphins and prostaglandins, inhibit nerve transmission and increase circulation in the tissues.

Acupuncture can often relieve pain within a couple of treatments. Often the pain gets worse after the first or second treatment, but this quickly gives way to some relief. Usually about 4 – 6 treatments are necessary, but in longstanding conditions more will be needed. Conditions that respond well to acupuncture include most injuries; spasms or inflammation of joints, muscles and tendons; headaches; neuralgias and Bell’s palsy; shingles; and sinusitis Research has revealed that benefit can be derived from stimulating points other than acupuncture points, and this has led to techniques such as biopuncture (injection of homeopathic preparations into painful points) or neuromuscular stimulation (which includes dry needling and injection of pharmaceutical drugs into painful areas).

Dry needling, as practised by many physiotherapists, does not follow acupuncture principles, although acupuncture needles are used. It is easily learned and extremely effective in relieving muscular spasm.

Magnetic therapy

BEMER therapy (bio-electromagnetic energy regulation) increases the electromagnetic energy of all cells, and also improves the circulation and oxygenation of the tissues. It’s useful in many conditions, including recovery from trauma and facilitating bone regrowth in fractures. You lie on a mat for a short time, while a pulsed magnetic field envelops you. It is entirely painless and free of side-effects and has been scientifically validated. Only a few daily treatments are needed for acute injuries, but daily long-term treatments are usually necessary for chronic conditions.

Electrical therapies

In TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) a mild electrical current passes between two pads placed on either side of the painful area. The current causes a tingling sensation that masks the pain by stimulating all the nerves in the area. These machines are relatively inexpensive and suitable for home use. Effectiveness varies according to the placement of the pads and the intensity and frequency of the impulses. Caution is advised, as high-intensity stimulation may actually suppress cellular healing. TENS devices work best for chronic pain, especially where there is muscle pain, nerve damage or sensitive skin areas.

APS (action potential stimulation) devices utilise a microcurrent that causes damaged cells to increase production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a substance that supplies the energy needed for optimal function and healing of cells. The electrolyte balance is restored and protein and collagen production is stimulated. The recovery of the cell wall also reduces the leakage of pain-causing chemicals. Whereas TENS only masks pain, the APS microcurrent actually facilitates healing.

Rife Resonator therapy. The Rife Resonator generates the so-called pain-relieving frequencies, 95 Hz, 105 Hz, 666 Hz and 10 000 Hz, enabling them to be applied for electro-therapeutic pain relief. Rife Resonator therapy works quickly and effectively on a wide range of conditions, reducing inflammation and spasm with consequent pain relief. Many doctors administer this treatment in their rooms, or units can be hired for use at home.

Elexoma is a hand-held microcurrent electrical therapy device for pain therapy, and includes cranial electrical stimulation (CES) as well. CES stimulates the release of neuro-transmitters for treating anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and depression. To overcome the body’s tendency to get used to the stimulation, these devices can be updated regularly by means of a smartcard.

MENS (microcurrent electrical nerve stimulation) machines are more for the practitioner to use. They work on the same principles as APS machines but often have an additional facility of electro-acupuncture.

Physical therapies

Body stress release is a technique that works on releasing stresses, spasms and imbalances in the spine, joints, muscles and soft tissues. The body’s muscular reflex responses are used to locate exactly where the problems lie. These areas are then stimulated in precise directions, which have a balancing effect deep into body areas that are normally inaccessible by manipulation alone.

Chiropractic involves manipulation of the spine to restore misalignment of the vertebra and free up communication through the central nervous system and peripheral nerves, to restore homeostasis and balance.

Exercise in its many forms is useful in rehabilitation and recovery from injury or surgery. Chronic back pain is often due to weak abdominal muscles and poor posture. Pilates is a form of strengthening exercise that focuses on supporting the shoulder and pelvic girdles, strengthening the abdominal muscles and increasing the flexibility of the spine. To get the maximum benefit it should be done under the guidance of a qualified instructor.

Hydrotherapy utilises heat and cold applications according to tried-and-tested naturopathic principles. Heat causes blood vessels to open up and muscles to relax. Cold applications contract blood vessels, then a rebound effect opens up the circulation after the cold is removed. Cold also numbs pain and reduces swelling and congestion of tissues. Heat application should routinely be followed by a short cold application to restore normality to the tissues.

Massage by a registered therapeutic aromatherapist or therapeutic massage therapist can be very beneficial and soothing for a variety of painful conditions. Appropriate essential oils are selected for application by massage, compresses or direct aromatic perfusion.

Osteopathy aims to correct mechanical imbalances in and between the structures of the body. It is not confined to the bony structures.

Reflexology is also an effective method of pain relief.

Medicinal therapies

Homeopathy. Several symptomatic homeopathic remedies can be very helpful in painful situations. Arnica is well known for muscle injury and bruising, Hypericum can help for post-surgical pain or nerve end pains, Chamomilla has helped countless babies cope with teething pains, and Mag Phos often relieves colic or stomach cramps. There are too many others to mention here.

Aromatic medicine. Several essential oils have definite pain-relieving effects, for example peppermint for surface pain, spike lavender for trauma and burns, and marjoram, black pepper, juniper and rosemary for muscular pains.

Several essential oils, such as tarragon, basil, laurel, coriander and bitter orange, can be taken orally for pain relief, but this should only be done under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. A useful combination of these oils, of high quality and purity and in the correct proportions, is obtainable in a capsule called Dolorom (Pranarom SA), which is effective in relieving headaches and menstrual, gastro-intestinal, rheumatic and dental pain.


I hope that this brief overview of alternatives to conventional pain therapies will help the reader make more informed choices regarding pain relief. Although pharmaceutical drugs are powerful and can provide rapid pain relief in the emergency situation, they are often accompanied by side-effects which become apparent with longer term use. The alternative therapies described above may provide effective pain relief, once past the emergency situation.


  1. Eisenberg DM, et al. Trends in alternative medicine use in the USA 1990-1997: results of a follow-up national survey. JAMA 1998; 280: 1569-1575.
  2. Teitelbaum J. General principles of pain relief – giving your body what it needs to heal and eliminate pain. Townsend Letter for Doctors, June 2006.

Further reading

  1. Chaitow L. Holistic Pain Relief. London: Harper Collins, 1997.


Please follow and like us:

Alternative Pain therapies: are they realistic?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
| Articles, Therapies |
Dr David Nye
About The Author
- MB CHB (UCT), MFHOM (UK), DIP HOM (CEDH). He practises integrative medicine together with his wife, Dr Sandi Nye, in Pinelands Cape Town. As a registered medical doctor, homeopath and acupuncturist, he has a special interest in chronic illness, especially when conventional medicine fails to help. He uses a variety of modalities, tests and treatments in his quest to find the best solutions for each patient.