The Benefits of Non-Pharmacological Pain Treatments
Many of us will experience long-lasting or chronic pain in our lives, whether it’s an acute injury like a sprain or torn ligament, a condition like arthritis or tendonitis, or migraines. There are many ways to manage pain, but options that aid the body’s natural response to pain or address the root cause of the pain are rising in popularity over the use of pain-relieving medications.
Common Treatments for Pain
There are several common treatments for pain you’re probably familiar with, and some may even be in your medicine cabinet right now.
Over-the-counter (OTC) Pain Relievers
Medications like ibuprofen (Mortin and Advil), naproxen (Aleve), aspirin, and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be purchased without a prescription. These medications affect hormone levels or pain receptors in the brain to lessen the feeling of pain. Additionally, acetaminophen affects parts of the brain responsible for regulating body temperature and is often used to lower a fever. Many “combination” medications like cold medicine and OTC migraine medications contain acetaminophen combined with other drugs like decongestants or caffeine.
Prescription Pain Relievers & Narcotics
A doctor can also prescribe all OTC pain relievers at a higher dose than available over-the-counter. Other pain relievers are only available by prescription are narcotics, which include medications like hydrocodone (Vicodin and Norco), oxycodone (OxyContin), and morphine. These are much stronger pain relievers, and many people become addicted to them when taking them for long periods, such as post-surgery or for a chronic and severely painful condition.
Learn more about new guidelines for pain treatment to avoid using opioids.
This treatment is done in a doctor’s office and is an injection of a corticosteroid often with a local anesthetic to relieve inflammation in the joints. Cortisone injections are a common treatment for inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis; however, they may also treat pain and swelling from osteoarthritis and tendonitis.
If severe pain is not relieved by other methods, surgery may be an option. Surgical intervention is typically reserved for cases of severe pain that have not responded to other methods. However, even surgical intervention can’t guarantee pain relief in these situations.
With the primary method of pain relief being medication, there are several drawbacks to long-term pain management, especially for individuals with chronic conditions like arthritis, tendonitis, and chronic migraine sufferers. Even OTC medications used for an extended period can have side effects. Additionally, medications can interact with each other, meaning a pain reliever can affect something an individual is taking for a separate concern. And with concerns about the opioid crisis, many patients and practitioners are reconsidering using medications for pain relief.
What is Non-Pharmacological Pain Management?
Non-pharmacological pain management uses methods outside of medication to treat and manage pain. There are many reasons someone may opt for non-pharmacological approaches to pain management, such as the medication may interact with another treatment they’re receiving, they have an allergy to the medication, or they have experienced adverse side effects in the past. They may also just prefer not to take medication, especially if they are concerned about side effects or addiction.
There’s a variety of non-pharmacological treatments for pain management:
Heat & Cold therapy
Ice packs, electric heating pads, and gel or rice packs can be used for heat and cold therapy. Ice or cold therapy is generally used to relieve pain from inflammation from an injured joint or arthritis by restricting blood flow to relieve pain. Heat therapy helps relieve muscle tension by increasing blood flow to relax the muscle. Some injuries can benefit from alternating heat and cold therapy.
Therapeutic massage can help relieve muscle tension, increase circulation, and properly stretch the muscles in your body, all helping to alleviate pain.
Meditation & Relaxation Techniques
Muscle tension and headaches can be caused by stress. Treating stress and anxiety with meditation and relaxation techniques can also help relax muscles and lower blood pressure.
Acupuncture improves the body’s natural healing process by stimulating specific anatomic points, commonly called acupoints. Most often, fine, sterile needles are used to activate acupoints, but pressure, heat, or electrical stimulation can also be used. Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine and the philosophy of yin and yang, which are opposing energy forces. Acupuncture helps restore the balanced flow of both forces by restoring “qi” pathways along the meridians of our body.
One way to treat pain is through physical therapy, which strengthens the surrounding structures of an injured joint. For individuals with arthritis, physical therapy can help build range of motion in affected joints with gentle but strengthening exercises.
Laser therapy uses a high-powered therapeutic laser with red and near-infrared light wavelengths to target the mitochondria of the body’s cells to boost cellular energy production. Laser therapy increases circulation and levels of inflammation-resolving mediators to help repair damaged tissue and remove waste. Laser therapy has been used to reduce pain long-term for arthritis, and tendonitis, as well as resolve slow-healing wounds and repair damage from acute muscle injury.
Benefits of Non-Pharmacological Pain Management
Non-pharmacological pain management has plenty of benefits. In many cases, these treatments address the source of the pain instead of masking the symptoms. For example, relaxation techniques manage stress, which may cause headaches or muscle tension. There are many other benefits to non-pharmacological pain management:
Minimal Side Effects
Drug-free pain management has fewer and less severe side effects than many medications. As always, inform your healthcare provider of any allergies, sensitivities, or medications you are currently taking to minimize risks for any treatment.
Easily Combine Treatments
In many cases, drug-free pain management techniques can be combined. For example, combining physical therapy with laser therapy can be a powerful combination to relieve pain and restore range of motion long-term.
Fewer Reactions With Medications
If you’re taking medication for another reason, drug-free pain management options generally don’t interfere with other medicines like pain relievers. Make sure your healthcare provider knows all the medications you are currently taking to determine the best solution for you.
Develop Good Habits
Drug-free pain management options often require multiple treatments or building a routine, which can help develop good, life-long habits for pain and stress management and add to your overall wellness.
Laser therapy is one form of non-pharmacological pain management. If you’re interested in learning more about how laser therapy works and how it can be applied to various chronic and acute concerns, visit our new resource library on Aspen Laser University for over 100 case studies.
This blog was originally published on June 15, 2020, and was last updated on September 6, 2022.