Although popping a pill may be easy for instant relief of pain associated with osteoporosis, you (and your doctor) need to aim pain treatment at more than temporary relief. The nonmedication methods noted here may relieve pain and keep it from coming back.
Heating it up or cooling it down
Heat packs and/or ice packs can be very helpful for relieving pain, especially if the pain is localized to one spot. If you're very stiff in the morning, standing in the warm shower can be enough to loosen you up, but be sure you're using your handrails! Cold packs can be wonderful for reducing swelling and inflammation, and can reduce pain by temporarily numbing the nerves.
If you want to make your own hot packs, you can warm slightly dampened towels in the microwave. Remember that microwaves don't apply heat evenly, and make sure the towel doesn't get too hot in one spot; you could end up with a painful burn in addition to your other aches and pains.
Frozen vegetables, especially peas, which can be made to conform to oddly shaped areas, make very good cold packs. Crushed ice in a resealable baggie also makes a good ice pack.
Using physical therapy
Physical therapy can help you maintain and improve the muscle strength you have, as well as increase your energy levels and raise your levels of endorphins (natural painkillers released by your body).
Some physical therapists come directly to your home and can help you assess your home for possible sources of injury. A physical therapist can assess your gait, help you improve your posture, reduce muscle strain, and help strengthen weakened or problem areas with specific exercises.
Many insurance plans cover part or all the cost of physical therapy, which can become quite costly if you go two to three times a week. Your plan may only cover if you go to a certain therapist, so make sure you check with the physical therapist's office to see if it's part of your plan.
Exercising to get rid of pain
When you're hurting, the last thing you may want to do is exercise, but exercise keeps you limber, builds your strength, and increases your energy level. The key to exercise is finding the right kind, not overdoing when you first begin, and not giving it up after a short time.
Walking in a pool filled with very warm water is beneficial in relieving pain and in beginning the muscle-strengthening process. Swimming, although not a weight-bearing exercise and therefore not helpful to improve bone mass, is a good exercise for weakened or damaged tissue. Warm water may also be wonderful for relieving muscle spasm.
Some insurance companies also cover part of the cost of pool or gym membership, realizing that exercise helps reduce health problems overall. You may have to pay upfront and be reimbursed; check with your insurance company for what it requires.
Exploring TENS units
A Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) unit uses electrical impulses to block pain signals. A technician places electrodes on your skin near the site that is hurting, and transmits a mild electrical current through them, blocking the sensation of pain for several hours.
TENS units cost around $100, and the electrodes run around $30 for a pack of four. Electrodes are good for between 15 to 30 uses. TENS units run on batteries, and most are small enough to hook to your belt so you can keep moving while you're wearing one.
Use a TENS unit only under the supervision of your doctor or physical therapist; your insurance may reimburse the cost as long as you have a prescription for the unit. You can also rent a TENS unit before buying one to make sure it's going to help you with your pain. Many medical companies let you rent one for a month and apply the rental fee to the purchase price if you decide to buy the unit.
If you have a pacemaker, you may not be able to use a TENS unit without interfering with your pacemaker. Talk to your doctor before considering a TENS unit.
Massaging away the pain
You can also use massage therapy to decrease pain, relax muscles, and relieve tension. Some malls have massage therapists set up so you can shop and then drop onto the table for some relaxation, but make sure the person doing your massage is a trained therapist.
Massage therapists should be graduates of an institution accredited by the Commission for Massage Training Accreditation (COMTA) and should also be members of the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA).
If you have osteoporosis, don't allow a therapist to deep massage near your spine. The pressure can cause fractures.
Bracing yourself, internally and externally
Spinal fractures are less likely to cause pain and deformity if they're braced; that is, if the broken bones are held in place to keep your spine in the best possible alignment. Bones can be held in place externally, by the wearing of a back brace, or internally, by a newer technique called percutaneous vertebroplasty.
External braces are often worn only during the acute phase after injury, because long-term use may weaken your back muscles. Meanwhile, percutaneous vertebroplasty involves stabilizing the fracture by injecting an acrylic cement into the broken areas of the vertebrae. An even newer technique called kyphoplasty inserts acrylic cement after inserting a balloon device into the vertebrae to try and restore the vertebrae to their normal position. This procedure reduces the deformity known as a dowager's hump that develops when the vertebrae collapse.
Coping with pain psychologically
Your mind is a powerful thing. In fact, "mind over matter" actually can reduce pain. Several different techniques use your mind to overcome pain:
- Biofeedback: With this technique, you discover how to use your body's response to decrease pain and stress through positive reinforcement. Often the technique is first taught with the use of a machine that records your heart rate and other vital signs as they change in response to stimuli.
- Eventually you figure out how to respond positively to pain by relaxing muscles, breathing deeply, or by using visual imagery to distract you from the pain.
- Guided imagery: This technique induces relaxation and decreases tension and anxiety by using visual images.
- Hypnosis: This technique puts you into a "trance state" characterized by extreme suggestibility and relaxation. A therapist may demonstrate a type of self-hypnosis similar to relaxation training so you can use it at home yourself.
- Relaxation training: This technique shows you how to relax tense muscles and reduce anxiety that can intensify pain.
- Music therapy: You can use this technique in conjunction with relaxation therapy to decrease anxiety and relax tense muscles.
You can also incorporate several of these methods together, such as relaxation training, music therapy, and biofeedback, to help cope with pain.
Seeing a pain management guru
You also have the option of seeing a pain management specialist. Typically a pain management specialist is an anesthesiologist with special interest in pain who is trained to give nerve blocks and other special procedures.
Pain management specialists often use a medication referred to as gabapentin (Neurontin) for pain. Originally the FDA approved this drug for treatment of seizures, but physicians discovered that it was useful for the pain that occurs after shingles and for the pain that occurs from damaged peripheral nerves, as seen in diabetes. Now doctors use gabapentin as a medication for treatment of all kinds of pain, as well as a number of other diseases.
Some pain management physicians are anesthesiologists with special training in performing nerve blocks as well as other sophisticated procedures designed to inhibit the impulses from the nerves causing pain. You may have these procedures tried if you have severe back pain from crushed vertebrae. Ask your primary care doctor to refer you, if nothing else has worked.