Top 10 Alternative Techniques for RSD/CRPS and other chronic pain conditions - Part 1

Hi folks! Here it is, post number 1 in the 10 part series,

Taming the Beast's Top 10 Alternative Techniques for RSD/CRPS & other chronic pain conditions! (I admit that short titles (or short blog posts!) don't seem to be my long suit; Ah well... )

I've ordered my list not ordered according to effectiveness, because that's different for each person, but by accessibility. Starting with those you can research easily and at least get a good start on yourself at home with no cost (though having a skilled teacher or trained professional to help can be wonderful and transformative), the middle ones have some unavoidable costs attached (for foods, sups, herbs, remedies) though you can do the research and work without a practitioner (though again, a teacher or practitioner is even better if you can afford it), the last 2 absolutely do require a practitioner.

Top 10 Alternative Techniques for RSD/CRPS (& other chronic pain conditions)

    1. Meditation/energetic medicine/spiritual practice
    2. Cognitive/Behavioral techniques
    3. Acupressure/TCM Meridian work
    4. Warm water therapies including Watsu
    5. Nutritional (diet)
    6. Nutritional (supplements)
    7. Herbal medicines, including cannabis
    8. Homeopathy
    9. Osteopathy (Cranial or British Trained)
    10. Feldenkrais

So, today we're going to talk about #1 on the chart: Meditation /energetic medicine/spiritual practice. You can tell I had a hard time sticking to 10; there are so many wonderful techniques we can use to help ourselves! Though it does mean another jumbo post, I justified sticking these three together because of how related they are in function. All of these techniques have several fundamental things in common; what they do and how they do it. What they do is provide a sense of groundedness, while at the same time enabling us to float above the pain and struggles of our everyday travails... pretty nifty trick, eh? How do they do this? This is achieved partly through seemingly mundane routes; putting things into perspective, slowing down our busy busy brains (and especially central nervous systems!), some biochemical routes now beginning to be shown through research, but also, perhaps, by some more esoteric pathways that science doesn't yet (and may never) fully understand.

Central nervous system (CNS) calming is especially important for those living with chronic pain, and even more so for those with RSD/CRPS. In any living creature in pain, stress hormones are constantly being pumped out to help deal with the crisis; when the crisis never ends, as in chronic pain, the adrenals get depleted and exhaustion sets in even as the demand for more emergency response within the body keeps firing. It's a never ending cycle and it does us no good whatsoever. In RSD/CRPS and a number of other diseases of chronic pain, that overstimulated CNS can lead to more than "just" pain; it can lead to various dysfunctions of the autonomic part of the nervous system.

When that happens, all sorts of parts of our bodies that should just take care of themselves go haywire; heart rate, temperature, circulation, digestion, all sorts of systems and organs can get messed up. Basically, the beast goes ballistic. Trust me, it isn't pretty and it isn't fun. It can even be life threatening, causing heart attack, stroke, seizures or accidents.     RSD/CRPS "Oldtimers", like me, often say that the dysautonomias are in some ways even harder to endure than the pain, and with good reason. This process happens almost invariably with RSD/CRPS, but any unrelieved prolonged pain can trigger this type of dysfunction. Our greatest tool in fighting this progression is deliberate and dedicated CNS calming, and the techniques we are discussing here are among the best for the task.

The science that we do have in this area, shows that what all these techniques have in common is helping us to achieve an "alpha wave pattern" in our brains. "Alpha state" is most likely to be entered when we are at our most calm and quietly centred; not uncommonly, our brains enter alpha state briefly just before sleeping or waking. It is most often experienced when people have their eyes closed and are calm, relaxed, and yet alert; neither sleepy or sleeping. It can be reached deliberately through many doorways; breathing exercises, meditation, biofeedback, yoga, chi gong, tai chi,  self hypnosis, listening to Baroque classical music,  relaxation exercises, floatation tanks,  prayer, and many more; some of these we'll be looking at in this post. It is also a state that can help us tame our beasts and live well, with less impact from pain and autonomic dysfunction. Biofeedback is the most "science-y" form of this type of healing work. Using a computer with some form of visual, auditory or sensory feedback, we can train our brains to produce alpha waves at will. It's a wonderful skill, and it can be a super technique, but it's one that will cost you. Meditation, energetic work, and spiritual practice can be free of charge, done alone, in the privacy of your own home, or anywhere that you need to reach that alpha state of healing and CNS de-stimulation.

Meditation is an ages old practice that has been considered largely a spiritual pursuit until recent studies have shown the many physical health benefits that are associated with regular meditation. From reducing blood pressure to fighting cancer and most certainly to calming the CNS, meditation's benefits have now been well documented. Here's the Mayo Clinic's list of disorders that can be benefited by meditation:


  • Allergies
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Asthma
  • Binge eating
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Substance abuse

Pretty impressive, eh? Of course, western medicine can be conservative; the complete list is quite probably longer. Meditation can be complex or simple. Yoga, Budhism, Tantra, Chi gong, Tai Chi; all of these and more are pathways to meditation techniques and other skills that can be a huge help with chronic pain reduction, CNS calming and symptom management.

Spiritual practice can be dictated as part of an organized religion or completely personal; it can be found through interface with others within a group of similar seekers, researched and explored through structured but private practice, or completely ad- libbed, by instinct, "on a wing and a prayer". In every case, similar benefits are found in those with regular spiritual practice to those who regularly practice meditation or other relaxation techniques. Some of this may be related to the support and social aspects to belonging to a religious group, but I believe that even a very private spiritual practice has significant benefits. The spiritual "solitary" has been revered and respected throughout history. A recent comparison of secular and spiritual meditation seemed to indicate benefits in the addition of a spiritual component beyond even those of meditation on its own (see list of further reading links, below).

Some forms of so-called "energetic medicine" are actually based on foundational Traditional Chinese Medicine techniques and theories, such as meridian and acupressure point work. More on these techniqes in post #3 as they can be so effective as to deserve their own post. Other forms of energy medicine are more closely aligned to faith healing or spiritual disciplines. I place Reiki in this class. Reiki is a particular kind of touch (or even distance) healing that many find very helpful. It is a specific branch of study and I have found that it is like so many forms of healing work; the practitioner is (almost) all! Reiki from the wrong person, or without consent, or at the wrong time can be very disruptive. Reiki from the right person, with consent, at the right time can be wonderful, soothing, and very healing.

Reiki, and other forms of hands on healing can be learned and practiced on oneself as well as others, through distance or on-line courses, books, etc. You'll want to investigate any of these offerings thoroughly, but once you find a source you feel good about, it may be worth a try. There is also a valid place for instinctive self-healing, which may verge into the overlapping territories of spiritual practice, meditation, and self-hypnosis (another path to alpha state that we will cover more is post #2 on Cognitive/Behavioral techniques.)

Well, we can discuss these ideas until the cows come home, but I feel that the most important thing I can offer are suggestions on implementing them as inexpensively and accessibly as possible. Most of us have serious limitations when it comes to both finances and travel. Whatever we can do in our homes on our own is likely to be most sustainable. Here's some easy-to-do techniques to try:

Meditation. I have posted the first in my series of guided imagery/creative visualization scripts this very day; my own beloved sleepy sloth meditation! No... don't you laugh, now (well, maybe do; heaven knows it's good for you!); animals have so much to teach us, and sloths have got a bad rap just by the association of their name to sloth... a human trait not much admired by our busy go-getter species. Head on over to Stress Management Central to try out being a sloth; you might just find that you like life in the slow lane! Research and experience (including my own!) have shown that imagining doing a task can create neural pathways almost identical to actually physically doing it. (See Creative Visualization page in my Stress Relief Central section for more info!)

Meanwhile, let's cover a couple of basic do-it-yourself meditation techniques.

  1. Counting: The most simple of meditation techniques, and once you've got it down, a wonderful one to use anywhere, anytime; this technique is as straightforward as it sounds. Get comfortable but ideally in a straight-spined position (sitting, laying, or standing), breathe gently, and count your breaths. That's it. Count "one" for your first breath, "two" for your second, and so on. Though this meditation is a technique for beginners, essentially it is designed to help your brain do one thing at a time, which is harder than one might think. If your thoughts stray (and they probably will, unless you are already a Zen master!), just acknowledge that you've gone off track, get back on board and keep counting. Some like to count indefinitely, some like to count only to five or ten and start again. A good suggestion is to set a five minute timer at first, then work up to fifteen or more. Some people love this basic meditation, find it very soothing and an effective route to alpha brain waves. Some, like me, who may be just a tad math-phobic might enjoy one of the other many meditation techniques better. If so (or if not) give some of the below a try!
  2. Mindfulness: Initially based on Buddhist concepts, the modern psychological definition of mindfulness is a state of being non-judgementally attentive and aware. Taking a brief spell of time out of your day to practice mindfulness based meditation can be a wonderful, energizing, yet grounding experience. It's especially suited to those times when the demands of the day seem to want to jump up and overwhelm you (like poor Alice with the deck of cards!), mindfulness helps us step back from daily stress, pain, and struggle; great for those of us with a chronic pain burden! Let's give it a go: Start with eyes closed. Breathe gently. Set aside the past, the future, and the concerns of the ongoing stream of your life to simply "be". This may sound almost silly, but it is astounding how rarely we do in the hustle bustle of the day to day. As you breathe, experience your body, even your pain, without focus on your emotional responses to those sensations. If you get stuck and can't move on, try saying in your mind "Yes, my leg (or whatever) is experiencing a burning, painful sensation. I see. Now I will move on to experience other sensations as well." Allow yourself to fully experience whatever physical sensations are involved in your present moment; the warmth or coolness from the closest window, the sounds of children playing or airplanes passing overhead, the nubbly feel of the upholstery on your chair's arm-rests, the scent of dinner cooking in the oven. Whatever those sensations, try not to make any judgement about them... if your wet dog is really stinky, just notice that smell and move on... if your stomach rumbles, your nose itches, or your thoughts briefly wander to what you need to do tomorrow, just notice and acknowledge, then turn your thoughts back to the sensations of being alive in your body, on this planet, in this moment. For starters, set a 5 minute timer, but consider working up to 15 minutes. Later, you can add sight, but we humans are so distractible, that many find this exercise more successful with eyes closed, at least at first. You may be surprised how much more rested and relaxed you feel when you make Mindfulness a part of your life.

    Speaking of sight, however, a  mindfulness variation I enjoy is to choose a small piece of reality to focus on visually; say around 1 square inch of anything... grass, fabric, the skin on my hand, pebbles at the beach... and really, really see it... notice every single visible aspect, explore it as though your eyes could touch and taste and smell.... See every shade and nuance of colour, every reflection and shadow. Maybe it is temperamental, maybe it's part and parcel with starting training as an artist at a very young age, but this truly is my personal favourite meditation, and one that predates my comprehension of the word! This is, believe it or not, considered an "advanced" meditation technique, so it might or might not be for you; if you are not very visually oriented, it might be too easy to get distracted while using this method. Start with the basics, but if this appeals to you deeply, or if you are more experienced and want to try an advanced technique, give my special 1 inch intensive optical mindfulness a whirl!
  3. Loving Kindness Meditation: also known as Metta-meditation, this technique is also based on Buddhist techniques. It can be complex or simple, long or short, but it is a foundational meditation form. I'll put a few links at the bottom for you but for now, let's just get started:
    • Sit in a relaxed position, with your eyes closed. Inhale and exhale gently for several breaths. Try to let go of any concerns any thought of past or present or future, simply feel your breath centering in and out in the area of your heart.
    • If complex emotions arise at any time during the meditation you need not deal with them directly. Use the skills you learned in the mindfulness exercise by acknowledging their presence without judgement, setting them aside and continuing on the meditation.
    • The first step of a loving kindness meditation is love towards oneself. Sit quietly while mentally repeat slowly and steadily and calmly the following phrases: "May I be happy. May I be well and at ease. May I be safe. May I be at peace."
    • While you repeat these phrases, allow yourself to truly feel the loving intentions of the words. If it helps to see an imagine of yourself in your mind's eye or to imagine yourself being held in large, gentle hands, this can help to reinforce the loving intention of your words.
    • After a period of directing this loving kindness towards yourself, bring into your mind the image of someone in your life who has loved you and cared for you. Slowly repeat the phrases of loving kindness toward them. "May you be happy. May you be well and at ease. May you be safe. May you be at peace." Again, as you say these phrases, sink into the deep, heartfelt meaning behind the words.
    • Next try to bring to mind someone who you have relatively neutral feelings towards; perhaps a bus driver, a shopkeeper, someone that you see in your neighbourhood on occasion. Again direct the words of loving kindness as you hold them in your mind's eye.
    • Now imagine someone for whom you may have some conflicted feelings; perhaps a friend or relative who you care about but who has hurt you in the past. Direct those words of loving kindness towards them, feel the intensity and intention of the words.
    • Finally, imagine someone who you have perhaps wholly negative feelings towards; someone who causes you great difficulty at work, perhaps someone who has harmed you personally or perhaps done harm to others. Direct the words of loving kindness toward them. This may feel very difficult. That is alright. Don't let any difficulty with the latter part of the exercise prevent you from doing what you can. If you need to stick with the part that feels truest for a while you can do that; but perhaps, after a few days, try the more difficult part again.
    • It's possible that for some, this last part may be just too hard. So many of us with chronic illness have experienced terrible assaults, and have been on the receiving end of so many blame-the-victim type guilt trips and if you are not ready for this step, do not judge yourself harshly. If this is the case, just accept that about yourself and your life for now. An alternative suggestion is to think of the entire world, the plants, the animals, the great mass of people inhabiting our beautiful planet and direct the phrases of loving kindness in a great encompassing arc. This less personal approach may be more tolerable, and can still fill you with a warm and enveloping feeling of generosity and love.
    • These 15 - 20 minutes may come to be a very treasured part of your day or week, giving your mind, body, and spirit a gentle and rejuvenating sense of peace. With practice, a warm and steady sense of loving-kindness can develop and perhaps stay with you throughout the day. If so, nothing could be better for calming the fight-or-flight overstimulated CNS!

    Well, there's a starter for you, and here's a couple of links for more:Ananda: Learn to Meditate; SUMMUM: Simple meditation; Ying Yang House. There are many wonderful schools of meditation technique; get on your computer and search for sites or books. Again; know your source, check for customer reviews, or get a reference from a trusted source, but there is a world of information out there waiting for you.

    Now what about energetic medicine... faith healing by oneself? Is that even possible? Absolutely! Don't worry about that natural skeptic inside you; I'm not playing Yoda here (well, not quite!)... this is bounded by science, too. We are simply using another method to help our brains to de-stimulate our CNS, produce alpha waves, and boost our immune systems in doing their job. Don't worry about it if you think all this sounds flaky; do it anyways. Give it a try on a daily basis for a week or two and you may be very pleasantly surprised with how it improves your energy and sense of wellbeing. Here are a couple of techniques for self-healing through "energetics".

    1. Creating a Light Shield. Lay or sit down in a quiet space. Get as comfortable as possible. Breathe in through your nose (if possible) and out blow out long, slow, gentle exhalations through your mouth. Close your eyes and picture yourself surrounded by a soft, silvery white light that glows stronger with each breath. This light surrounds you in a great egg, or globe shape (whichever you like best), and protects you even as an eggshell protects a growing chick. Know that you are safe, that while that light surrounds you, any negative energy from outside that glow is powerless to cause you harm. Feel the light fill your being, cleansing troublesome feelings from the day's struggles and leaving you as light and free floating as a feather.... This is a nice simple exercise to do at bedtime, before or after medical procedures, or any time you've been through or are heading into a stressful experience.
    2. Making a Chi ball. In Chinese philosophy, chi is the basic energy of life. We all have it, but it can become depleted or blocked through the struggles of our lives. Pain is certainly a chi depleter! And many of the restrictions of a life in pain block the proper circulation and release of excess chi. I'll describe this exercise in its more active form, standing and using hands and arms, but any part that is beyond you physically, just imagine doing, as clearly as possible. To create a chi ball, stand with your legs slightly apart, your knees slightly bent. Rub your hands together briskly until you feel a slightly electrical, stimulated feeling between them. With your fingers loose and palms open and facing each other, pull your palms apart as if you were stretching taffy between them.

      Imagine that you are stretching an invisible band of energy between them, pulling it farther and farther apart, then returning your hands together to mix that invisible energy up and then stretch it apart again, just as if you were kneading bread dough. Each time you bring your hands together, make an invisible "ball" of this invisible (or imaginary if you wish) energy, moving your hands just as if you were making a snow ball. Then mix it together again and pull it apart again like taffy. After a while of this, see how big your invisible ball has become. Is it small, like an apple? Your chi is depleted and needs replenishing. Is it great big; like a beach ball or much bigger, uncomfortable to hold? Your chi has been blocked from its natural flow (by stress, pain, illness, lack of creative or sexual outlet etc); you need to give some back to its source. What is the source of chi? The universe... the earth and the sky.

      Form up that chi ball, feel it's size and density then, instead of stretching it side to side, grab some in each hand and stretch your right hand up towards the sky (as well as you are able... and don't forget to imagine any part that's physically beyond you right now... even the entire exercise!). As you stretch your right hand up, simultaneously stretch your left hand down towards the earth. If your chi ball was small, feel the earth and the sky replenishing your chi, filling your energetic tank with warm, pulsing energy. If your chi ball was uncomfortably large, feel the earth and the sky draining it down, gently but firmly. Bring your hands together, mix up that chi ball and do it again with the hands reversed. Each time your hands come together picture that chi ball either growing or shrinking as you need it to; allow yourself to feel the crackle of the energy through this process, and the relief that can flood through you as you get the help you need. When your chi ball is just the right size (just like what Goldilocks was looking for... not too big, not too small but juuuust right!), hold it gently for a moment, then tenderly tuck it into your body, just under the rib cage. Flatten your hands on your abdomen, feeling the warm, wonderful sensation. Take a moment to feel gratitude to the universe and your body. Now, get on with your day or your evening feeling renewed and recharged by having just the right amount of chi to provide you with calm, stong energy.

    3. Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. This practice lies somewhere around the intersection of meditation, energetic medicine, and spiritual practice in many ways, though studies have shown that it works through some purely physiological pathways as well. Plants of the forest, especially trees, emit numerous chemical compounds. Some of these, called phytoncides which are exuded to protect them from rot and insects, have been found to benefit the human immune system, even to help prevent or treat cancer. First popularized in Japan, where it is now a commonly prescribed stress relief technique used by large corporations who appreciate the benefits of a well work force, forest bathing is simply this: spending quiet time, walking or at rest, in a forest.

      The documented health benefits, which can last for more than a week following a few hours' time in the woods, include lowered blood pressure and heart rate, calmer functioning of the brain's frontal cortex, decreased stress hormones from adrenaline to cortisol, and stabilized parasympathetic nervous system activity. All of these are crucial aspects of the CNS stabilization that people suffering from chronic and acute pain so badly need. Since people with RSD/CRPS and other long term, acutely painful diseases may be at increased risk of cancer, the boost to immune function is more than welcome, too! Although studies have tracked some of the very profound benefits, scientists have not yet been able to fully explain the processes by which Forest Bathing soothes our bodies, minds and spirits.... As a tree hugger and woods walker from wayyy back, I have a few theories of my own, but however it works, I highly recommend this gloriously enjoyable healing practice!

      There are many more techniques of this nature for you to discover. Do an internet search for energetic medicine or energy exercises; see what come up and give it a try!

      Now, spiritual practice. You may be a determined atheist, or a dedicated agnostic. No worries, those are extremely valid views. They do not, however rule out the possibility that some of the techniques discussed in this section might be of use to you. You might be surprised at the benefits you receive from some of these practices, and no deity need be involved. Please read on, keep an open mind and consider these as just more potential tools in the toolbox.

      Alternately, you may have your own tried and true religious practices in place. If so, that's wonderful! Don't forget them! Use them not only when in crisis, but regularly, daily if you can; take time to slow down for prayer, or whatever other rituals of comfort you have. Let's not forget though, in those times of crisis or throughout a usual day in pain, that prayer is not only the property of those with an organized religion or identified deity; a prayer can be a simple moment of expressing gratitude for the gifts in your life, or a silent "unaddressed" request for strength in a time of trouble. In either case, you might be surprised at a sense of peace and clarity that allowing those feelings to be put into spoken or unspoken words can bring.

      If you have no practices in place, but haven't totally decided against, now may be the perfect time to find some that fit. You could re-explore the religion you were raised with, or the religion of your ancestors. The feeling of joining the generations that preceded you as you light the candles in the Menorah, say the traditional bedtime prayer, or waft the sacred smoke to the heavens with the eagle's feather can be a moving, significant, and powerful experience, even if you think that it's all "just superstition"... let your inner sceptic take a hike for a while, and experience the rituals that touched your ancestors.

      Alternately, you can create your own practice of meaning. You might enjoy doing a little study. Look up comparative religions and see if some parts of some organized schools of spiritual thought speak to you. Take some time alone and try these out. There is nothing wrong with a private spiritual patchwork. You don't need to be espoused of any particular belief to get benefit from ritual, the movements and words, the sounds and sensations in themselves can help you to touch a part of your own psyche that eludes you in the struggles of the day... and help you to enter that healing alpha state. You may find that without any conscious thought, some state of belief or even a state of suspended belief may touch you with dove's wings and give you peace. I strongly suggest you give the spiritual or contemplative side of your being an outlet... Let your spirit fly.

      Just to get you started, here's a project we can all enjoy and benefit from; those of us with a spiritual practice and those of us who have never dipped a toe into those waters, even those who don't really feel the need but are open to any technique that may improve our chances of taming the beast... Let's make an altar. Choose a spot... a windowsill, a mantle piece, a dresser. Put up photographs of the people and animals who you have loved best (and who have loved you!) in your life, as well as any spiritual leaders wise teachers, or people throughout history who you have admired; Einstein? Buddha? Rachel Carson? Mooji? Neil deGrasse Tyson? Moses? Perhaps Snoopy, or Lisa Simpson? .... Also put up magazine clippings or photos of "some of your favourite things"... flowers, apple pies, crossbows, baby animals, musical instruments, covered bridges... whatever gives you joy. Now place some things from nature on the surface of your alter, perhaps on a piece of cloth in colours you love; stones washed round by the sea, a bowl of fruit, a bouquet of flowers, red leaves in fall, a four leaf clover, sticks, shells, feathers, whatever natural things might please your eye and hand and spirit.

      Each day take a moment upon waking and again before you rest, to go to your alter and give thanks for these things. If you don't have a deity, give thanks to nature, to the universe, to your body for giving you the senses to enjoy these things. You can simply sit quietly, for a moment of peace to flow through you, or perhaps light a candle, burn some sweet grass or sage, sing a song, say a prayer, silently remember the people you love who are far away or gone from this world... make your own rituals but keep your alter beautiful and clean, change it around a little on a weekly basis, keep it fresh and tidy and esthetically pleasing. Revamp it with the seasons, and in honour of special days in your life, official holidays or no. This simple exercise can be the start of creating a place of peace and gratitude in your home and within yourself that can be a surprising source of strength and healing; please, just for me (and most of all for you ;) )... give it a try!

      Now, with all these techniques to try (or for those of us who are aware of them but have maybe dropped them a little or a lot from daily use), we've all got a nice new (or re-vamped) medicine bundle of tools to reach that healing state of alpha brain wave peace. Try them out, and use your creative spirit to make more of your own to tame your beast with. May the force be with you!

      Further Reading of Interest:

Author: Lili Wilde
Date Posted: 2013-10-10   Date Last Edited: 2013-11-25 14:25:54


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