When used properly, prescription pain medications can help to relieve all sorts of discomfort; however, they can be incredibly addictive. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 2.1 million people deal with substance abuse related to prescription opioid pain relievers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And that’s not all. “We’re now seeing a trend towards switching from prescription pain medications to heroin, which is equally dangerous, if not more so, since there is a high probability for contamination of heroin with other drugs, increasing the risk for overdose and death,” Tania Dempsey, M.D., a physician at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut, and founder of Armonk Integrative Medicine, told The Cheat Sheet.
Thankfully, there are more natural ways to treat pain that carry no addictive risk whatsoever. Here are 10 doctor-approved treatment alternatives.
A growing bed of research is finding that swapping pills for nutrient-packed supplements may go a long way in helping reduce pain for some patients. Several studies, including one published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, found vitamin D is a possible treatment for chronic pain. “Vitamin D is important for bone health and muscle function and a deficiency in this important vitamin can contribute to pain, particularly lower back and musculoskeletal pain,” Dempsey said.
There are countless benefits to be gained from this centuries-old practice. One, in particular, is it helps relieve pain. In fact, several studies have found yoga can help ease pain in patients with fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, lower back pain, and more. One study, in particular, analyzed 313 people with chronic lower back pain and found that a weekly yoga class was able to increase their mobility and limit pain better than standard medical care.
“Certain yoga positions are great for loosening up and strengthening tense muscles which helps alleviate pain,” Lisa Ashe, D.O., a board-certified internal medicine physician, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet.
It might seem counter-intuitive that a few minutes of relaxation, breathing, and focus could help ease the physical symptoms of pain, but randomized trials have shown that mindful meditation can reduce chronic pain. “This form of therapy can ease the mind and tension associated with some chronic pain conditions,” Nada Milosavljevic, M.D., founder of Sage Tonic, an innovative holistic program for wellness, said. One possible explanation as to how it helps, she notes, is that it may reinforce some areas of the brain used for pain processing and alter or dampen pain signals.
4. A healthy diet
As the saying goes, we are what we eat. This essentially means that the type of food we put into our bodies, healthy or unhealthy, will determine how we feel. And it’s true, especially when it comes to chronic pain, according to several studies. “What we eat will play a role in our nutritional status, how are bodies detoxify, and can contribute to pain and inflammation,” Milosavljevic said. “Limiting or avoiding foods that can contribute to the inflammatory process, such as sugar and refined and over-processed foods, is key.”
Regular physical activity is the key to good health, along with a nutritious diet, and is the primary defense against many chronic, pain-inducing diseases. “Moderate exercise increases your body’s natural production of endorphins, or feel good hormones, that bind the opioid receptors, the same receptors that pain killers bind to,” Dempsey explained. “Exercise also increases your tolerance for pain, so, even if the pain is still there, your brain learns to push through it.” In other words, if you stick with an exercise routine over time, you will feel less discomfort from the exercise itself and less impact from the pain that you are carrying.
6. Physical therapy
Physical therapy involves treating injury through physical methods, including stretching, massage, and exercise as opposed to drugs or surgery. “Physical therapy can help strengthen the muscles around joints that are arthritic or have been injured, which can help take the pressure off the joint and ease pain,” said Dempsey. “A good physical therapist will work with you to target specific areas where the pain is originating, like joint issues.”
7. Massage therapy
Massage therapy is often part of physical therapy, however, you can access massage therapy without the use of a physical therapist. Different massage techniques can work wonders for those experiencing back, neck, and knee pain. One study, published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork analyzed hospital patients from medical, surgical, and obstetrics units and found that a massage reduced pain.
This 3,000-year-old traditional Chinese medicine healing technique has been shown to be helpful for both chronic as well as acute pain. “Acupuncture uses needles that are placed in locations, called acupoints, that correspond to specific parts of the body,” explained Dempsey. “The needles serve to move the energy, or qi, through pathways in the body to help with healing.” The idea is that blockages in energy lead to pain or illness. The treatment has been known to help ease all sorts of pain in the back and shoulders to headaches and joints.
9. Cognitive-behavior therapy
Not all chronic pain is caused by physical ailments. In fact, many, including depression, are caused by mental ailments. This is why various psychotherapeutic approaches are gaining popularity when it comes to treating patients with pain. One example is cognitive-behavioral therapy, this form of treatment involves applying practical skills that help patients better cope with day-to-day pain both mentally as well as physically.
“Oftentimes, pain is the direct result of an underlying mechanics or structural issue that cannot be resolved conservatively,” Ilan Danan, M.D., a sports neurologist at Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, California, explained. “In instances such as these, certain procedures including injection-based procedures or even surgery can eliminate one’s pain significantly and thus reduce the need for pain medication.”
[Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 30, 2017.]