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10 Alternative Treatments for Pain

Do you live with chronic pain? For many, it’s a daily struggle. In a 2016 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than 20% of the U.S. adult population had chronic pain. Approximately 8% had “high impact” chronic pain that limited at least one major activity in their life.

There are many types of pain, such as lower-back pain, neck pain, migraine headaches, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and fibromyalgia. With America’s opioid crisis and medicines such as Oxycodone and Fentanyl in the news, people with chronic pain are looking for alternative ways to manage pain. Fortunately for pain sufferers, there are several alternative pain treatments that may be helpful. These include diet, exercise, herbal supplements, acupuncture, and stress reduction techniques.


A Brief Look at America’s Opioid Epidemic

For many years, when confronted with a patient in severe pain, doctors commonly prescribed an opioid-based medicine. In 2016, U.S. health care providers wrote more than 214 million opioid pain medication prescriptions. This represents 66.5 prescriptions per 100 individuals. In that same year, there were more than 42,000 fatal opioid overdoses, with an estimated 40% due to prescription drugs.

Although heavy prescribing of opioids and subsequent overdose deaths are not a new phenomenon, the “first wave” of this epidemic was in the 1990s. During this time, an increase of deaths from synthetic opioids, such as Fentanyl, focused attention on the cause of the nation’s opioid crisis.

Recent findings show a link between aggressive opioid marketing by pharmaceutical companies and the current opioid epidemic. This led to a greater awareness of the risk of opioid addiction from doctor-prescribed pain medications. With this concern for prescription opioids comes a renewed interest in alternative ways to treat pain.


Ten Alternative Pain Treatments

If you ask a dozen people what they do to relieve pain, you’re likely to get a dozen different responses. Results will vary, depending on the individual and type of pain being treated. This list includes the most popular alternative pain treatments. The word “alternative,” however, is a misnomer as many of these are traditional healing techniques, used long before modern medicine.

Alternative medicine has moved into the mainstream, with many scientific studies on their effectiveness. For example, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is the federal government’s primary agency for scientific research on alternative health care practices and products. The website provides a wealth of information about many different healing options.


1. Acupuncture

With acupuncture, an ancient Chinese healing system, a practitioner stimulates parts of the body by inserting thin needles through the skin. The aim is to rebalance the energy (qi, pronounced “chi”) in the body. Though accounts vary, acupuncture may date back as far as 1500 BC, and it’s used to relieve various types of pain such as migraines and headaches, knee pain, neck pain, lower back pain, and osteoarthritis. Several studies suggest that acupuncture, for some people, may be effective at relieving these types of chronic pain.   


2. Chiropractic Manipulation

Chiropractic manipulation or chiropractic adjustment is a procedure where trained specialists use either their hands or small instruments to apply force to a spinal joint in a controlled way. The first chiropractic adjustment was by Daniel David Palmer in 1895. This practice helps to relieve pain and improve the spine’s range of motion. A chiropractor will often use this technique to relieve lower back pain, neck pain, headaches, and whiplash conditions. Research has found that spinal manipulation can be effective for neck or lower back pain, migraines, and other conditions.   


3. Diet (anti-inflammatory)

Studies in recent years show a correlation between inflammation and chronic pain, and other diseases. Inflammatory foods include processed meat, white bread and pasta, trans fats, sugary drinks, gluten, and processed snacks like crackers and chips. It’s been shown that eating an anti-inflammatory diet, such as dark green leafy vegetables, whole fruits (especially berries), nuts, whole grains, and legumes, can help to reduce both pain and inflammation in the body. In addition, research has found that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as olive and flaxseed oil, also reduces inflammation.

Tart cherry juice has gained in popularity in recent years for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s widely used to reduce muscle soreness, alleviate arthritis symptoms, and mitigate the effects of gout. Diet management has been shown to be an effective complementary treatment tool for patients with rheumatoid arthritis.  

4. Exercise

A person in chronic pain will likely not have a strong desire to exercise or be physically active. However, research has indicated that physical activity can alleviate pain in those with chronic conditions such as arthritis, chronic widespread pain, and fibromyalgia. Activities such as aerobic exercise, and strength and flexibility training can help reduce muscle stiffness and improve the body’s range of motion. Physical activity has also been found to be advantageous for reducing chronic back pain. At the same time, physical inactivity may contribute to a rise in chronic diseases.

Researchers also mention helpful movement therapies such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and yoga for those experiencing chronic pain. They provide a gentler, lower intensity exercise (see #10 below, Stress Reduction and Relaxation Techniques).


5. Heat Therapy and Cold Therapy

Heat and cold treatments can help relieve muscle and joint pain. But which should you use and when? A cold pack decreases blood flow and reduces inflammation. This makes cold packs appropriate for injuries and swollen or inflamed joints and muscles, to reduce swelling. A cold pack can be used for tendinitis, gout, strains, and osteoarthritis. You may also help reduce migraine pain by placing a cold wrap or mask on the forehead.

On the other hand, heat therapy promotes blood flow, which helps your muscles relax. This makes it helpful for chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, neck pain, and back pain. For muscle pain caused by over-exertion and exercise, try alternating hot and cold treatments. You should never use extreme heat nor place ice directly on your skin.


6. Herbal Remedies

There are several herbs that have been found to help relieve pain. Turmeric, a traditional plant used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine, is frequently mentioned for its ability to reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation. It’s even recommended by the Arthritis Foundation for those with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and bursitis.

Cannabis (marijuana) is one of the world’s most well-known herbs, popular for its pain-relieving properties and other medical uses. The CBD variety (which doesn’t have psychoactive properties) interacts with the brain’s pain receptors to provide pain relief and an anti-inflammatory effect. Other herbs used to relieve pain include devil’s claw root (low back pain, arthritis), comfrey (back pain), white willow bark (headaches, low back pain), and feverfew (migraines).   

7. Nutritional Supplements and Vitamins

If you look up “nutritional supplements for pain,” you’ll find many different formulas available. In addition to the herbs previously mentioned, you’ll discover alpha-lipoic acid (reduces inflammation), glucosamine and chondroitin (pain relief and ease of movement), and SAM-e (relieves arthritis symptoms). Another option is Boswellia, a tree resin that can reduce osteoarthritis pain. Capsaicin, found in chili peppers, may help ease pain due to arthritis. And Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a fatty acid, may reduce joint pain, and swelling and stiffness in RA patients.

8. Physical Therapy

People who have to cope with regular pain management may find physical therapy helpful. The purpose of physical therapy is to prevent and manage disabilities or injuries, relieve pain, promote healing, and restore physical function and ease of movement. A physical therapist may use various methods, such as exercise, electrical stimulation, heat/ice packs, and ultrasound.   


9. Psychological Therapy and Support Groups

The American Chronic Pain Association provides resources for support groups, by state, for those living with chronic pain. Research has found that participation in a self-help support group helps people with chronic pain increase their activity and functional ability. Speaking with others who have similar challenges may be more beneficial than continuous visits to health professionals. The benefits of psychological therapies for chronic pain have also been studied since the experience of pain is an emotional and sensory one with additional symptoms such as depression and anxiety.


10. Stress Reduction and Relaxation Techniques


There is great interest in the body-mind connection to understand the causes and ways to relieve pain. In fact, research shows a connection between stress and pain. These discoveries help to provide additional treatment options for pain sufferers.

A 2010 study found that relaxation techniques including progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery, and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), may reduce acute and chronic pain. Research examining MBSR and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in people with back pain found improvement from both treatment methods.

There are several relaxation techniques that can be used to reduce pain and anxiety. These include biofeedback therapy, deep breathing techniques, guided imagery, hypnosis, music therapy, and mindfulness meditation. In addition, therapeutic massage may serve to stop pain messages traveling to and from the brain, and relax painful muscles, joints, and tendons. Mind-body practices such as yoga, combine movement, breath control, and meditation have been found to help people with fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraine, low back pain, and other chronic pain conditions.



Individualized Pain Management

You’ll find that there are many types of pain and different forms of treatment. So, it may take some time to discover the healing practice that’s most effective for your situation and your lifestyle. If you’re already taking pain medication and are considering another form of treatment, you don’t necessarily have to choose another drug. Alternative treatments for pain can often be used alongside your doctor’s prescribed medication. Speak to your healthcare provider to discuss adding one or more of these treatments to your pain management plan. Incorporating an anti-inflammatory diet, relaxation techniques or other methods to reduce pain may be an effective complementary form of treatment to help you live more comfortably and with less pain.
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