How to Deal With Unexplained Pains

Five Methods:Addressing Dietary ChangesChanging Your LifestyleLowering Stress and AnxietyTrying Natural RemediesRuling out Physical Causes

Symptoms, including pain, that cannot be explained medically account for up to 30% of complaints seen by primary care physicians.[1] About 1 in 10 people over the age of 40 suffer from unexplained nerve pain.[2] Sometimes pain may be partially related to psychological health, including muscle and joint pain, stomach pain, and headaches. Stress and anxiety can also make pain that has a physical cause worsen. [3] The best treatments therefore take into account both possible physical and psychological causes.

Method 1
Addressing Dietary Changes

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    Try an elimination diet. Certain chronic illnesses, like migraines and autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), are worsened, possibly even partially caused, by diet.
    • For migraines, you should try eliminating chocolate, aged cheeses, nuts, wine and other alcohols, and limiting caffeine. Also cut out anything with MSG or nitrates, like prepared foods and deli meats. See a neurologist and follow the National Headache Foundation diet.[4]
    • For RA, make sure to eat a variety of foods, mostly natural grains and vegetables, limit sugars and alcohol, and watch your fat intake.[5]
    • After you’ve eliminated any problem foods, watch for improvements in your symptoms over the following weeks. If you start to see improvements, slowly begin adding one item back into your diet at a time. Keep a journal to see how you feel as you add each item back in. By adding one item at a time, you should be able to identify the food that was responsible for your symptoms.
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    Eat more omega-3 fatty acids. Since this essential acid helps with inflammation, it can be used to treat headaches, joint pain, back pain and menstrual pain.
    • It is best to eat foods high in these fats, including fish, canola oil, spinach, and eggs with added omega-3 acids.
    • You can also take up to 3 g of fish oil in capsule form.[6]
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    Ingest some probiotics every day. These bacteria may lessen inflammation and help with stomach pain.[7]
    • Probiotics are found in yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut.
    • You can also take a supplement, up to 10 billion CRUs a day.
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    Check for a Vitamin D deficiency. This vitamin may lower cytokines that cause pain. It also may be associated with decreasing pain from fibromyalgia. You get most of what you need from the sun and a proper diet.
    • Exposing 50% of your skin for 12 minutes a day in the summer months will almost fulfill your daily requirement.
    • You can get more from eating fatty fish.
    • You may also take supplements, but make sure you know how much you are getting from the sun and your diet so that you don’t reach unsafe levels.[8][9]
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    Include turmeric in your diet. Turmeric is a root in the ginger family and can be bought as a spice. It lessens inflammation and can help with back and joint problems.
    • Either cook with it or make a tea to drink.
    • You may take capsules too, up to 2 g a day.[10]
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    Take magnesium supplements. They can help with different pains, including muscle cramps and migraine headaches. Magnesium is the 4th most abundant mineral in our cells and 2 out of 3 Americans don’t get enough.[11]
    • Foods that include high levels of magnesium include spinach and other dark lettuces, some nuts, including almonds, cashews and pumpkin seeds, lentils and some whole grains, and fish like halibut.
    • Aim to eat one or more of these foods daily and take a supplement of 200 mg of magnesium gluconate 2-3 times a day.[12]

Method 2
Changing Your Lifestyle

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    Stop smoking. Smokers report the greatest level of back pain and disc problems, whereas those who have never smoked report the least.[13][14] Smoking also contributes to headaches, especially migraines. If you have frequent headaches, you should stop smoking immediately.[15]
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    Get more sleep. It’s hard to deal with pain when you aren’t getting enough sleep.[16] People who sleep more hours a night report having less pain sensitivity, meaning they can withstand more pain.[17][18] It also improves your mood, which may in turn make you think about being in pain less.
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    Exercise regularly. Exercising releases endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals in the body, which may act like pain killers. They also boost your mood, which can distract you from any pain you feel.[19]
    • Exercising also reduces cytokines, substances in the body that increase inflammation and are associated with nerve pain.[20] Chronic inflammation has been linked to several serious diseases.
    • People in regular pain might be afraid of moving any more than necessary, but this will make your pain worsen, not lessen.[21] For back pain, you should not rest for more than a couple days. After that, try low-impact exercises like swimming or yoga.[22]
    • For chronic pain felt most anywhere, do some enjoyable exercise for at least 20 minutes three times a week.[23]
    • For some conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, getting a definitive diagnosis can be difficult. However, for any condition, it is best to start off with some low impact cardio exercise. Once you feel an improvement in your symptoms, you can progress to include high repetitions of low weight resistance exercises.

Method 3
Lowering Stress and Anxiety

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    Relax. Some kinds of pain, particularly back and stomach pain, may worsen with stress and anxiety, causing a vicious cycle of worrying about the pain while the pain gets more intense. Pain can also be caused by, not just exacerbated by, anxiety and stress.[24]
    • The way the body responds to stress is similar to how it responds to pain. Both create faster heartbeat and breathing and make your muscles tense up. [25]
    • Stress causes more cortisol, the stress hormone, to be released into the blood, which can make you more vulnerable to feeling pain.[26]
    • Try out mind-body therapies. These include meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis and biofeedback. The last two require a doctor’s help, but you can do the others on your own.[27]
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    Meditate for at least 20 minutes a day. Meditation has been shown to be an effective treatment for chronic pain.[28] There are different ways to meditate, but the objective is to calm your mind and slow down your autonomic processes, like breathing and your heartbeat. You can just sit quietly and try not to think about anything, or use guided imagery to focus your attention on positive ideas.
    • Lie or sit comfortably and pay attention to your breathing. Don’t try to control it, just notice the pattern and sensation of air going through your body. When thoughts or pain surfaces, think of them like a cloud passing over the sky quickly, acknowledge them, and watch them fade into the distance.[29]
    • For guided imagery, imagine blocking off the pain physically, like putting it behind glass.[30] Or, sit and breathe deeply for at least 10 minutes a day while imagining a tranquil scene. Picture it as completely as you can, with sounds, sights, smells, etc., so you can imagine you are actually there.[31]
    • Use foursquare breathing. Breathe in deeply into your abdomen, inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, and exhaling for four seconds. Hold for a count of four before repeating. Repeat ten times total.[32]
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    Try positive self-talk. This means replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones. Rather than thinking to yourself, “My back is killing me! I can’t do anything today,” correct yourself and think, “I can break down my task into smaller ones and do one thing at a time. I can certainly do at least the first step now, despite the mild pain I feel.” [33][34]
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    Play a video game. Gaming has been shown to reduce stress and help with problem solving abilities.[35]
    • It is better to choose a game that is not particularly violent. Both violent and non-violent gamers have reduced stress, but there are competing ideas about whether violent games distort one’s vision of the world around them.[36]
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    Listen to music. This is a form of helping through distraction. People with chronic pain have reported having less pain after listening to music for an hour every day.[37]
    • It doesn’t matter what kind it is, as long as it causes you to relax, not be agitated.
    • Everyone’s taste in music is different, but generally consonant harmonies are more pleasing to most people (as opposed to clashing tones or chords). If your first choice isn’t relaxing you, try a different musician or type of music.[38]
    • The best pain relief has been associated with music that has a positive message, is lower tempo and low in intensity.[39]
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    Laugh more. Laughing increases oxygen circulation and lowers your blood pressure.[40] It also triggers the body to release endorphins, which act like painkillers.[41] Laughing therefore offers stress relief and promotes happiness, which can help you focus less on your pain. [42]
    • Watch a funny movie or TV show.
    • Download your favorite comic routine to your phone or iPod.
    • Call a friend or family member and reminisce about the good times.
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    Join a support group. Having unexplained pain can be a lonely, frustrating experience, so it is important for you to maintain and develop your social circles during this time. Joining a support group for people who are dealing with similar types of pain will give you a chance to talk through your struggles and gain insight from other people's experiences.
    • Look for groups in your area that meet in person or check out online forums.

Method 4
Trying Natural Remedies

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    Use capsaicin for back or nerve pain. You can apply it with a skin cream or patch. This ingredient is found naturally in peppers. It works by stimulating and decreasing the strength of pain signals through a compound that is believed to relay information between nerves and the brain.[43]
    • Use capsaicin cream up to 4 times a day. It may burn or itch the first couple times, but this will decrease and pain relief will increase with continued use.
    • Make sure to wash your hands after applying and before touching any other areas of the body, especially your eyes.
    • Also try skin cream made with comfrey extract up to 3 times a day for back pain.[44]
    • Ingesting hot peppers or taking a supplement helps digestion and stomach problems. It may also prevent bacterial infections.[45]
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    Take SAM-e as an anti-inflammatory. If your pain is due to arthritis, joint pain, chronic lower back pain, or fibromyalgia, you can take SAM-e supplements, which are a synthetic version of a chemical naturally found in the body. SAM-e reduces inflammation and is considered an analgesic, like aspirin or ibuprofen.[46]
    • Take up to 1200 mg a day, divided into 3 doses, for the best effect. [47]
    • You may feel relief after a week, but many people need at least a month of taking it to feel significantly better.[48]
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    Try white willow bark. This herb, which has been called ‘nature’s aspirin,’ is especially helpful for headaches and lower back pain because it helps reduce inflammation.
    • Boil 1-2 tsp or dried bark in 8 oz of hot water to make a tea that you can drink 3-4 times a day.
    • It also comes in capsules, of which you can take 120-240 mg each day. [49]
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    Take boswellia. Boswellia has helped people have less frequent and milder cluster headaches, for example.[50] It also helps with osteoarthritis pain.[51]
    • Take by capsule or tablet, up to 900 mg a day.

Method 5
Ruling out Physical Causes

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    Visit your doctor. Do not just assume there is no good medical reason for your pain. Check with your healthcare provider to rule out possibilities and ask for advice on what to do going forward. S/he will want to do a physical exam and probably run blood tests to make sure your pain isn’t the result of a serious health condition.[52]
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    Explain the problem. Be prepared to discuss the following:
    • Describe your symptoms. Be specific about where the pain is and any other symptoms that seem to accompany this pain. Also be sure to tell her or him when they started.
    • Does anything make your pain better or worse?
    • What do you think the cause may be, and what do you expect from them as far as treatment?
    • Explain how the pain affects your daily life. Are there things you simply cannot do that you really need to do?
    • If your pain is all-over and interrupting your ability to sleep, ask your doctor if you may have fibromyalgia. Up to 85% of people who suffer from this have disease not been diagnosed, according to estimates. Symptoms include widespread pain and severe fatigue lasting for at least 3 months, coupled with an inability to sleep well. [53][54]
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    Tell them if you have been depressed, as well. If no physical explanation can be found, and you have been in long-term pain while also feeling depressed, tell your doctor and get a referral to a mental health professional. Depression can cause all types of physical problems, particularly headaches, stomach and back pain.[55][56]
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    Get a second opinion. If your general practitioner doesn’t seem to be taking your concerns seriously, or cannot offer any insight, get a second opinion, preferably from a specialist who deals with your type of pain.


  • Keep in mind that there are many conditions where your doctor may not find a suitable diagnosis. Try not to get frustrated if this happens. Instead, try to take take a holistic approach to your pain and explore all of your options for treatment.

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Categories: Pain Management and Recovery