The pain Shara Baack experiences every day defies description as a headache.
Confined mostly to Baack's right side, the sensation travels from the back of her head, up over her ear and radiates to her right eye. Diagnosed as "chiari malformation," Baack's skull squeezes part of her cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls balance. The condition — often present from birth — also compromises the flow of cerebrospinal fluid.
For Baack, it's pain that seizes her senses the moment she wakes up and holds her consciousness captive with few options for escape. The 60-year-old Medford resident is one of more than 116 million Americans — about one in three people — suffering chronic pain, according to a 2012 report in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"It's just overwhelming if you have a headache all day, every day," says Baack.
A quest for coping mechanisms, instead of more pain medications, led the Medford resident to meditation, yoga and a holistic program designed for anyone in daily discomfort. Breaking Free of Chronic Pain combines energy medicine, gentle movements, deep breathing, body awareness, mindfulness and guided relaxation in weekly classes with three local practitioners of alternative therapies.
"Chronic pain is so complex," says instructor Laura Winslow. "Really, what it's about is helping people cope and function."
Winslow devised the six-week series with Kathryn Reppond, a fellow yoga instructor and mind-body therapist. The two teamed up five years ago to create Integrative Recovery Therapy, a yoga-based take on 12-Step Programs for treating addiction.
While teaching at local centers for addiction recovery, Winslow and Reppond realized that a significant number of clients resisted taking their class because they suffered chronic pain. Addiction to medications intended to treat chronic pain is another facet of the problem.
"It's the most prominent issue right now," says Winslow. "It's really an outcome of the state of our current medical system."
Working as an X-ray technician for three decades in local hospitals, Baack agrees.
"There's a push to say, 'Here, take this pill and go away.' "
But Americans aren't looking for narcotics, according to a Newsday interview with Dr. Brian Durkin, director of the Center for Pain Management at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Medical Center.
"They're looking for pain relief," Durkin told Newsday.
Relief for Grants Pass resident Sandra Oliver has become more elusive as her prescription painkillers lose effectiveness, even with increased dosages. A patient of a local pain specialist, Oliver undergoes a variety of therapies and treatments for degenerative disc disease. She saw a flier for Breaking Free of Chronic Pain at her physician's office.
"I thought, 'That couldn't hurt to try,' " says Oliver, 68. "It helps mentally just to be around other people."
Sharing how their lives would be different without omnipresent pain is participants' opening exercise at a March meeting of the workshop. Responses range from "renewed, refreshed" and more energetic to Oliver's desire to have more of a social life, ride her bicycle again and walk more than a quarter-mile at a stretch.
Gentle exercises are on the evening's agenda, which is all about finding balance, explains Winslow. Starting with a walking meditation, participants silently recite the mantra, "I see myself as still water; I am calm," coordinating the phrases to their breathing. Yoga's alternate-nostril breathing is another technique the group learns for balancing the nervous system.
"Repatterning" the body is the goal of energy exercises presented by Karen Parnell, certified in Eden Energy Medicine and Energy Kinesiology. The third instructor for Breaking Free of Chronic Pain leads the group through a seven-minute routine targeted to the spleen and "triple warmer," an organ system defined by traditional Chinese medicine.
To calm the triple warmer, participants cradle their upper bodies in their arms — like holding a baby — and sway from side to side. They move energy with their palms up and down their legs, balance energy by extending their arms across their body's midline and free blocked energy by tapping their collarbones.
"Pain is just a sign of blockage or overenergy," says Winslow, citing a tenet of traditional Chinese medicine.
If their pain increases while lying on mats on the floor, participants are encouraged to simply visualize lying down for the workshop's segment on somatics. Everyone eases onto the carpet, however, while Reppond leads them through a series of movements designed to train chronically tense muscles to loosen. Effort is focused on releasing a contraction rather than stretching a bound-up muscle while cultivating awareness of the body, instead of disconnecting.
"They're gentle movements," says Oliver.
Admitting that the format can be a "little bit hard" on some parts of her body — her right hip, for example — Oliver says she feels an overall benefit, particularly from the guided relaxation that closes every class.
"People do report a huge shift ... just being able to relax," says Winslow. "It's hard for people to relax on their own."
Gardening, says Baack, helps to divert her attention from the pain, along with breathing, stretching, meditating and simply not talking about her ordeal too often. Although Baack resorts to taking painkillers some days, alternative methods of managing pain are the prescription of her primary-care provider, a nurse practitioner with a local chiropractic group.
"Eastern medicine is different, so your heart has to be open," says Baack, explaining that yoga and other aspects of Breaking Free of Chronic Pain bring "peace" over her body.
"My goal is to be happy," she says. "Whether or not it's a placebo effect, I'll take it."