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Top 5 Alternatives to Medication for Chronic Pain Management

Everyone has experienced physical pain at some point in their lives, sometimes severe or unbearable pain, yet with proper pain treatment and time, pain recedes in the majority of cases. However, as many as 100 million Americans suffer from persistent or chronic pain (pain which lasts several months), according to figures from the Institute of Medicine. Myriad different medical and psychological conditions can be the root cause of chronic pain, but in all cases, it is a debilitating for patients, both physically and psychologically. 

The extensive range of possible causes and types of chronic pain can make it difficult to treat, with the response to treatments varying between patients; what is an effective form of pain relief for one person may prove less effective for others. This holds true for both pharmaceutical treatments and alternative non-drug therapies, so for many patients, a multi-disciplinary approach to pain management will be the most effective method. 

Over-the-counter medications, for example, Tylenol (acetaminophen) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Motrin (ibuprofen), may provide relief for less severe pain, but chronic pain patients often require stronger prescription medication, such as muscle relaxants or opioid medications. Other prescription pain medications include tricyclic antidepressants, which are sometimes used to treat pain caused by headaches or pinched nerves, and neuropathic pain and peripheral neuropathy agents, such as Cymbalta (duloxetine).

Medicine prescribed for pain control will depend on the cause and severity of the condition, so it is important to discuss any approach to pain management or any new treatments with your physician. 

However, there are many alternative treatment options, such as complementary therapies and non-drug treatments that can be effective in alleviating pain or helping patients manage pain… 

1. Physical therapy

Physical therapy plays a vital role in pain control for many patients, particularly among those whose pain is caused by injury. Physical therapists look for areas of weakness or stiffness, then work with patients to build strength and flexibility in these target spots.

It is no quick fix, but physical therapy can have long-lasting benefits, helping you get stronger and feel better. Many therapists will also teach patients exercises to build strength and improve mobility that can be practiced at home.

Massage, physical therapy and other similar forms of pain treatment are often particularly effective for musculoskeletal problems, such as low back pain or neck pain. 

2. Natural, non-drug pain relievers

Despite the availability of many prescription and over-the-counter pain medicine, there are also several natural non-drug pain relievers and herbal remedies starting to gain acceptance in the medical community. 

One example is cannabidiol (CBD) oil and other CBD products, which can be used to reduce pain and inflammation. Derived from the cannabis plant, CBD products do not cause the euphoria or “high” desired by recreational marijuana users, as this is caused by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). 

review of the efficacy of CBD in chronic pain management by the National Institutes of Health, published in 2008, concluded CBD was an effective option in pain management, with the added bonus that it has minimal or no adverse side effects.  

3. Counseling and Psychotherapy

Chronic pain can take its toll psychologically, sometimes leading to depression, insomnia, anxiety and other psychological pressures. This psychological strain can exacerbate symptoms and make pain worse, making it difficult for patients to think about much beyond their pain. 

Counseling and psychotherapy can provide patients with an outlet to discuss their pain and its effect on their life. Trained counselors and psychotherapists will also be able to help guide patients in pain management strategies and equip them with useful psychological tools.  

Seeking psychological treatment can also help patients manage the secondary effects of chronic pain, such as depression and anxiety, which can put added strain on patients and increase the burden of chronic pain. Medication may offer an effective method of pain relief in the short-term, but for many patients, counseling is an important part of a long-term pain treatment.  

4. Acupuncture & Acupressure

Acupuncture, a part of traditional Chinese medicine, is an ancient healing art that has gained popularity as a method of pain management in the United States. Practitioners aim to alleviate pain symptoms by stimulating trigger points on the body, often by inserting thin needles.

The National Institute of Health notes there have been extensive studies into the effectiveness of this form of pain management, adding that it is a “reasonable option for people with chronic pain to consider”. 

Conditions acupuncture may help with include neck pain, lower back pain, osteoarthritis, tension headaches, and migraines. 

5. Mind-body therapies & biofeedback

Mind-body therapies encompass a range of pain management techniques, but at their core, they are therapeutic approaches focusing on relaxation, visualization, and methods to improve the mind’s ability to affect and diminish the symptoms of chronic pain. 

During biofeedback sessions, patients have electrodes attached to their body, which measure a variety of the body’s functions and reactions to pain, such as breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscle activity. Patients work with therapists, learning relaxation, meditation, and other techniques, to instantly react to and modify their body’s response to pain. 

Usually conducted in a therapist’s office, there are now products available for patients to gather and analyze their own data by connecting sensors to their home computers. 

What else can I try for pain relief?

Chronic pain is a serious condition, and with the wide variety of possible causes and available treatments, you should seek professional help from your healthcare provider for the best results and most effective pain management.

In addition to the measures above, other possible treatments include: dietary changes, which are sometimes recommended for patients with fibromyalgia or overweight patients with osteoarthritis; massage; other alternative therapies, such as reiki healing; bioelectric therapy; and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation therapy (TENS), which uses electrical stimulation via electrodes on the skin to reduce pain, and has proved particularly effective in certain patients with diabetic neuropathy who struggle with neuropathic pain.   

Each person is different and it may be that a multi-disciplinary approach to pain is the most effective line of treatment. Non-drug therapies can prove highly effective in some patients, but less so in others, so it is advisable to discuss options with a physician or a specialist at a pain clinic to find the most effective pain treatment plan for you.