Opioids are a powerful tool for treating pain. However, they are not the only solution. Whether you are looking for alternative therapies for pain or are hoping to learn more about holistic pain management, it’s important to know that pain is most often addressed using a combination of treatments.
Treating pain with opioids
Two common types of pain are acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain is sudden and lasts days or weeks. It’s related to a specific cause, such as an injury or surgery. Chronic pain lasts longer and can be related to a disease, condition, medical treatment or unknown causes.
To help ease pain, health care providers consider several factors — such as the type of pain you have, your age, any health issues or conditions you have, your mental health, and more — to determine the best treatment options, which can include:
- Interventions and procedures.
- Mind-body therapies.
Opioids are a commonly prescribed class of medicine that is used for a short time to manage acute pain. Designed to target nerve cells and block pain signals, prescription opioids include codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl. Prescription opioids may be used long term in certain cases, such as to treat pain related to advanced-stage cancer. The reason opioids typically are recommended as a short-term solution for acute — not chronic — pain is that they provide less relief over time.
Although opioid medicines can be effective, they come with risks and side effects such as:
- Accidental overdose death.
- Upset stomach.
If your health care provider suggests using opioids for pain treatment, make sure that you ask questions to feel informed. At minimum, you should understand alternatives that might work, why you are taking an opioid, how to use the medicine appropriately, how to store it and how it might interact with your other medicines.
Good alternatives to opioids for pain
Opioids aren’t the only option for pain treatment. In fact, even if your health care provider has prescribed opioids to treat your pain, it’s likely that your care team has recommended that you also use nonopioid pain control. Having a holistic approach to treat pain not only reduces dependency on opioid medicines, but also provides you with a variety of tools to address pain as your pain and associated therapies evolve.
Nonopioid pain control can be achieved with prescription and nonprescription medications, including:
- Acetaminophen, which you might know as Tylenol. There are many applications for this medication that can be used for acute and chronic pain.
- Antidepressants help regulate pain sensations in addition to mood. Antidepressants such as tricyclic antidepressants and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors can be used to treat chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and migraines.
- COX-2 inhibitors inhibit a specific enzyme, which means reduced inflammation. COX-2 inhibitors are commonly used to treat chronic arthritis pain. An example is celecoxib.
- Gabapentinoids such as gabapentin and pregabalin reduce inappropriate nerve conduction found in conditions such as diabetic neuropathy and chemotherapy-induced nerve pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which you might know as aspirin or ibuprofen. Used for acute pain, NSAIDs help reduce fever, inflammation and pain.
- Steroids are anti-inflammatory medicines that can help reduce acute pain after surgery or injury.
- Topical medicines are applied to the skin as an ointment, cream or patch. Topical medicines such as lidocaine are used for muscle, joint and skin pain.
What are some alternative pain management options?
If you’re wondering how to deal with chronic pain without medicine, you aren’t alone — and it is possible.
Movement and exercise
In some situations, a health care provider or a pain management program will prescribe movement to help relieve pain. Some common examples include:
- Aerobic exercise, such as walking, biking and swimming, can help your heart, lungs and circulatory system, while helping to manage chronic pain.
- Flexibility training uses stretching exercises to help reduce stiffness and promote range of motion.
- Occupational therapy considers your physical abilities and helps you adapt to your environment.
- Physical therapy focuses on exercises and physical activities to help restore your body’s function.
- Strength training not only helps you gain strength, but also supports joints and reduces fatigue. Options include lifting weights or doing body-weight exercises.
Also known as mind-body therapies, integrative therapies harness the power of the mind to assist in pain management. There are many integrative therapies available — here are just a few:
- Acupuncture is the traditional Chinese medicine practice of using thin needles in pressure points to move energy throughout the body. It can alleviate pain and nerve tension.
- Massage therapy involves manually manipulating soft body tissues to treat pain and promote feelings of general well-being.
- Yoga is a practice that combines breathing techniques and meditation with exercises that promote flexibility, strength and relaxation.
People feel pain differently. Pain can vary from day to day or change based on activity. It’s the reason that there are so many choices for treating pain. Talk with your health care provider about managing your pain — and keep talking about how your pain management treatment is working (or not).
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