Ten empty folding chairs face a mirrored wall at La Clinica Wellness Center in Medford, Oregon, where mostly older men and women gather for a weekly “Easy Movement for Easing Pain” class.
For an hour, Laura Winslow, certified yoga therapist and health coach, leads them in gentle, seated exercises—bending, stretching, twisting and strengthening—to release chronic tension and muscle and joint pain.
The class is one of many like it in the rural Northwest that help people manage chronic pain.
After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines in 2016 calling for fewer prescriptions of opioids for pain relief, more and more people are seeking pain-management alternatives.
“Opioids were never intended for chronic, non-cancer-related pain,” Laura says. “Using them over time often leads to hyperalgesia, causing the body to become more sensitive to pain, making it worse.”
Laura knows pain well. She suffered whiplash injuries from car accidents in 1982, 2000 and 2019.
Sitting at a computer all day made things even worse, but she never used opioids for pain relief.
“I was afraid of them,” says Laura, who founded Breaking Free of Chronic Pain in Central Point, Oregon. The organization offers information and classes for chronic-pain sufferers.
Fifty million American adults have chronic pain, according to the U.S. Pain Foundation. Chronic pain is defined as annoying to disabling and lasting every day or most days for six months or longer. It’s usually caused by an injury or other health condition and commonly manifests as headaches, back pain and arthritis.
Muscle weakness and tightness lead to instability—a big underlying cause of chronic pain, Laura says.
Inflammation in the body from stress, anxiety, poor diet and insufficient sleep worsen pain by interfering with the body’s natural pain relievers.
Laura says whatever the pain medicine, surgery or therapy, individuals have a personal responsibility to take an active role in managing what they can in order to help their bodies hold and reduce the need for the treatments they receive.
“Our bodies were built to move,” she says. “Doing so sends synovial fluid to the joints, like WD-40 on a rusty bolt, which increases mobility and reduces pain.”
The U.S. Pain Foundation says chair yoga, restorative yoga, tai chi and aquatic exercise all increase flexibility and stability, especially for those with physical limitations. The foundation also encourages a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables; good fats from fish, nuts, avocados and olive oil; and limited sugar, processed foods and saturated fats. Laura says avoiding foods that may cause inflammation is a good idea too. That includes gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, corn, sugar and peanuts.
“Drop all seven for 21 days. Then bring in one at a time every few days, and if you feel pain, you know what to avoid,” Laura says.
Drinking plenty of water—half your body weight in ounces daily—is another important practice for better health, she adds.
Laura recommends meditation and mindfulness to calm the mind and emotions. Guided relaxation and body-awareness reduce stress and induce peacefulness. Long, slow breathing also quiets anxiety.
“Start through the nose for four counts, imagining the breath aiming toward the pain,” Laura says. “Hold for seven counts and then breathe out through the mouth for eight. Doing this while holding one wrist crossed over the other actually reduces pain by confusing the brain.”
Complementary therapies, from acupuncture and massage to hypnosis and physical therapy—also help get a handle on what hurts. It takes a variety of approaches and patience to figure out what works best, Laura says. Having a positive attitude is also key.
“Self-awareness helps you discern what feels most comfortable and right for you, and what makes you feel worse,” Laura says. “You have to embrace the idea that this is your body, and you are the master of this domain.”3
From Hurt to Hope
It’s a rough journey from opioids to alternative treatments, including for the loved ones of chronic pain sufferers, says Michelle Frizzell, former addict, and clinical supervisor at Grand Ronde Recovery in La Grande, Oregon. “When you’ve got someone suffering, it’s easy to think of them as somehow morally deficient or that something in them is broken, versus this is a really ill person who needs help,” she says. In July, Ruralite featured Michelle in the article, ‘Coming Out of the Dark.’ “After reading that,” Michelle says, “one patient told me that her daughter, who’s a heroin addict, wants to meet me. It gave her hope.”
Help is Out There for Those in Chronic Pain
NATIONAL General Information
- Pain Connection – (800) 910-0664
- Practical Pain Relief
- SMART Recovery – (440) 951-5357
- “7 Safe Alternatives to Opiates for Those in Recovery”
- U.S. Pain Foundation – (800) 910-2462
- Online Support Groups
REGIONAL General Information and Workshops
- Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Health
“Living Well Alaska”
- Southeastern Idaho Public Health
“Living Well in Idaho”
- Breaking Free of Chronic Pain – (541) 210-1952
Central Point, OR
- Center for Human Development – (541) 962-8871
Pain Management Program (for EOCCO clients, only)
La Grande, OR
- Deschutes County Health Services – (541) 322-7430
Living Well Central Oregon
“Living Well with Chronic Pain”
- La Clinica – (541) 535-6239
- Oregon Health Authority – (503) 947-2340
“Living Well with Chronic Conditions”
Helping Oregonians with Self-Management of Chronic Pain”
- Oregon Pain Guidance
Stay Safe Oregon
- Washington State Department of Health
Rural Resources Community Action
“Living Well with Chronic Conditions”
About the series: This Ruralite-produced initiative spotlights health challenges in rural communities, efforts to address them and the unsung heroes behind the work. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which funds projects and programs in Alaska and the Northwest. The sponsorship helps fund journalism that makes a difference. To read past health features, visit www.ruralite.com/category/health-series/