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Pain? Chuck Norris knows about dishing it out, relieving too

Last week I touched on the need for modern science to look beyond standard research and standard therapy in finding approaches that will not only successfully treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but also create a pathway to a life of greater serenity than before its onset.

As pointed out by author Matthew Green, it remains uncertain how psychological trauma damages structures in the brain, bringing on PTSD. What is clear is that the brain’s defenses are much easier to switch on than they are to switch off – even long after the trauma has passed.

One thing that the neuroscience of trauma has done is make an invisible injury both visible and real. It has also sparked a closer look at nondrug treatments for all manner of recurrent pain.

As the New York Times’ Jane E. Brody recently pointed out, research has demonstrated the power of the mind as a non-pharmacological remedy has shown to be effective in relieving many kinds of chronic or recurrent pain. Drug-free pain management has now become a top priority among researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

As Brody points out, acute pain is nature’s warning signal that something is wrong and requires attention. When that pain becomes chronic, it is no longer a useful warning signal and can lead to perpetual suffering. Many clinicians are coming to believe that throwing powerful drugs at chronic pain problems only adds to the problem. It can eventually lead to increasingly higher doses needed to keep the pain at bay. The key is how does someone learn to control the pain and learn to live with it?

Chronic or recurrent back pain is a condition that plagues approximately one-quarter of adults and costs the country an excess of $100 billion a year in treatment and lost productivity. The American College of Physicians non-drug guidelines for treatment include superficial heat, massage, acupuncture or, in some cases, chiropractic spinal manipulation. Also recommended is exercise, rehabilitation, acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, progressive relaxation, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction (a technique that helped Brody deal with her back pain).

Among the newest studies in this area of pain management is one conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. It includes both mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy. Results showed this approach proved to be more effective than traditional care in relieving chronic low back pain and improvements in function.

This is not to say these alternative approaches to pain management do not have their share of challenges. Most health insurers do not cover the cost of such complementary treatments, leaving drugs as the only remedy covered by insurance. Availability of such treatments is also difficult to find in some non-urban areas, along with certified therapists trained in cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Meanwhile, some folks are turning to the humble ukulele as not just a fun and accessible musical instrument but as an instrument to be used in healing and mindfulness training. As someone who has tended to look at the ukulele as a toy or as the backbeat to Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” it’s hard to take such reports seriously. Yet there is some neurological basis for the claim.

Dr. Laura Boylan, a neurologist with Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center and NYC Health and Hospitals/Bellevue, believes it an established and undisputable fact that playing the instrument can produce feelings of emotional and spiritual well-being.

“Our bodies and brains work in and with rhythms, which can be modified by things around us,” Dr. Boylan tells Ozy News. “Sound is made up of the kind of waves that are especially suited to modifying these neurological rhythms, as is rhythmic touch. So when a person strums a ukulele, the body literally becomes tuned to it.”

These benefits do not seem to translate to other musical instruments. What makes the ukulele unique is the way it is held – next to the heart. It vibrates against the heart, promoting a deep state of listening. The reverberation of strumming a ukulele helps align chakras. You combine this with exercises for breathing and stretching as people play the instrument and you have a new form of yoga.

In recent years, the healing properties of the ukulele have begun to be recognized by senior centers. The part of the brain that holds recognition of music is the last part we lose as we age. There is now evidence to suggest that the instrument is particularly helpful for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

None of this is meant to dispel the importance of traditional scientific research, but merely to show the important complementary nature of such therapy. For example, a new study just announced by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health has identified a sac secreted by cells that contains proteins that can act like “messages in a bottle” between cells and potentially be used to hone in on a particular tissue and block the spread of cancer or viruses like HIV and Ebola.

This discovery is generating a great deal of interest in the biotechnology field as researchers see it as a clear path forward in addressing the spread of certain diseases. Unfortunately, it will be at least 10 years before we can expect to see these methods used in a clinical setting.

Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.