Nondrug Therapies to Treat Chronic Pain
According to the National Institutes of Health, pain is the number one reason people seek medical attention. One of the most common ways doctors help ease patients’ pain has been to prescribe a painkiller. In the late 1990s, doctors began prescribing opioids in greater and greater numbers, as these drugs were very effective at managing pain, and pharmaceutical companies assured doctors that their patients wouldn’t become addicted. Unfortunately, many did become addicted, which led to the current opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. The current situation has made many doctors more cautious in prescribing opioids, creating the need for safer and healthier forms of pain relief. In addition to non-opioid painkillers (such as NSAIDs), here are some alternative ways to treat chronic pain:
Many people living with chronic pain avoid exercise because it’s not comfortable to do so or they fear exercise will cause their pain to worsen. But numerous studies have shown that exercise is very effective in reducing pain. When you exercise, you release endorphins, natural chemicals that reduce your perception of pain, acting similarly to morphine and codeine. For those with limited mobility, exercises such as yoga and tai chi have shown to possess strong pain relief benefits. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people living with fibromyalgia who participated in tai chi classes twice a week for 12 weeks reported less pain than a control group who participated in stretching sessions and wellness education twice a week.
Physical therapists offer a wide variety of pain management techniques to help patients who are dealing with chronic pain, including strength and flexibility exercises, posture training, use of heat and cold, biofeedback, ultrasound and electrical stimulation.
The healing power of touch is so apparent that massage has been used in numerous cultures for millennia as a way to alleviate pain. A recent study conducted at the Duke University Health Center showed that patients with arthritis experienced significant improvement in both pain and mobility after undergoing a whole-body massage once a week for two months.
Meditation, in addition to being a powerful stress reducer, has also been shown to reduce pain. In a study conducted at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, researchers found that people who were meditating experienced less pain than control groups when subjected to a painful prod on the back with a thermal heat probe. The study led lead researcher Fadel Zeidan to conclude that “this study is especially significant to those … looking for a nonaddictive way to reduce their pain.”
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese art that has been used to alleviate pain for centuries. Although formal studies have been mixed on acupuncture’s ability to control pain, a report published in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Journals Library indicated that there was “significant evidence” to demonstrate that acupuncture provides more than a placebo effect for chronic pain.
As with acupuncture, many mainstream medical professionals view chiropractic medicine with suspicion, but many people have experienced relief. A study of US military personnel showed that chiropractic treatments helped ease lower back pain.
Counselors can help us manage the mental aspect of pain. Pain isn’t “all in our head,” but how we think about pain does make a difference. Stress and anxiety magnify the perception of pain. Counselors help patients break the cycle of pain and anxiety by learning to think about pain in a different way.
Other natural remedies
Many natural remedies have been shown to help control chronic pain for some people. In a study comparing fish oil to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, like ibuprofen), research showed that fish oil had an “equivalent effect” in reducing arthritic pain compared to NSAIDs and appeared to be a safer alternative. Another powerful anti-inflammatory is turmeric, the yellow spice used frequently in Indian food. Many people have found that turmeric works as a pain reliever for osteoarthritis, headaches and other pain responsive to anti-inflammatory medication. Spicy foods in general, including cayenne pepper and wasabi, have shown some promise in relieving pain.
If your doctor is reluctant to prescribe opioids for you, have a talk about other possible remedies. Not every potential remedy is going to work for everyone and it may take some experimenting to find the solution that’s right for you.
This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor if you have questions about your pain relief needs.