If you’ve ever broken a bone, especially a major one - your arm, your leg - you know how painful it can be. Now imagine living with osteoporosis, and the daily threat of bone fractures. Simply walking can cause hip and/or spinal fractures and their accompanying pain, in those with severe bone loss. Here are five ways to cope with osteoporosis pain.
Heat and ice
The very simplest, first-line defense against bone pain is good, old-fashioned heat and ice. If you’ve done something to exacerbate your normal pain, get into a comfortable position, and place a heating pad on the affected area; this will relax any tight muscles. After 30 to 60 minutes, replace the heat with a cold pack or ice bag, to reduce inflammation. This hot-and-cold combination can head off certain types of pain before they become established and turn into something major.
We Americans love to turn to the pharmacy for all our problems, from insomnia to an upset stomach to bone and joint pain. Drugs are certainly key in treating osteoporosis pain; choose the type of drug you need for the specific pain you’re experiencing, and you should definitely find some relief.
-Mild pain: an over-the-counter painkiller - Tylenol, aspirin, Advil, Aleve - is effective at treating mild pain and discomfort. Ask your doctor about frequent use, though; these drugs may cause stomach irritation if taken regularly.
-Severe pain: Pain that doesn’t respond to over-the-counter drugs demands a narcotic: e.g., Vicodin, OxyContin, Percodan. These drugs can’t be taken long-term, as they can become addictive; but used with care, following doctor’s orders, they’re very effective.
-Fracture pain: calcitonin (Miacalcin, Calcimar, or Fortical) has been shown to work for fracture pain, in some cases. If you’re dealing with a fracture and can’t find relief from other medications, ask your doctor about calcitonin.
-Chronic pain: If you’re having to deal with regular, unrelenting pain, antidepressants can sometimes help break the cycle. Your doctor will have to prescribe something; and be aware that most antidepressants take weeks to kick in, so don’t expect immediate relief. But if all else fails, give them a try.
Pain can sometimes be due to chronic inactivity. The more you hurt, the less you move, the worse you hurt; it can be a vicious cycle.
A physical therapist can show you ways to move safely, with as little discomfort as possible. S/he can also outfit you with physical support: a back brace, for instance, if you’re dealing with spinal fractures. Physical therapists have lots of experience dealing with bone pain; don’t be reluctant to access their services.
Will Reiki cure a hip fracture? Does meditation rebuild a crumbling spine? No. But complementary and alternative therapies - those therapies that go beyond drugs, surgery, and other physical interventions - can help relax your mind and body, making it easier for medical treatments to work.
For instance, acupuncture has proven effective with osteoporosis patients not only by reducing pain, but by increasing energy levels. It also increases levels of serotonin, your body’s "feel good" hormone. (Hamel, 2010)
Likewise, people who receive Reiki treatments find it reduces their stress level, which in turn relaxes tight muscles, often the source of at least some osteoporosis-induced pain.
Healing touch, therapeutic massage, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) - all fall under the heading of complementary and alternative therapies. You might be tempted to write them off as "crazy head games," but millions of people, for many centuries, have used them to treat all kinds of pain. You know what they say: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
What’s the best way to deal with pain? Prevent it in the first place Here are some tried and true ways to mitigate the effects of osteoporosis:
-Diet. Make sure your diet includes sufficient calcium and vitamin D. In addition, boron and manganese (both found in nuts); isoflavones (found in soy, and particularly helpful for post-menopausal women); and vitamin K, vitamin B12, protein, potassium, and magnesium are key bone-building substances.
-Lifestyle. Stop smoking; no two ways about it, it’s bad for your bones. And excess alcohol consumption lowers bone mass density: for women, more than one serving of alcohol a day is excessive; for men, make that two servings.
-Exercise. Yes, it really does promote bone health - especially the right type of exercise.
Feeling the pain? While it’s difficult to eliminate permanently, bone pain can usually be controlled. Hopefully one or more of the strategies listed above will prove to be just what the doctor ordered.
Hamel, P. (2010, October 08). Complementary and alternative therapies: Beyond the drugs. Retrieved from https://www.healthcentral.com/osteoporosis/c/78/121569/complementary
Osteoporosis pain. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/guide/osteoporosis-pain
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.