4 Ways to Relieve Chronic Pain Without Pills

4 Ways to Relieve Chronic Pain Without Pills

From celebrities hooked on painkillers to those recent Senate hearings regarding the investigation of pain clinics, you can't escape the news about prescription pain pills. These painkillers are vital to the proper treatment of pain, but they cause big trouble when used the wrong way. If you're among the 100 million Americans coping with chronic pain, scary stories about addiction and overdoses probably have you wondering how to best ease those aches.

Chronic pain following major surgery (hip or knee replacement, for example) can often be managed with local anesthetics, topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and oral NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen). They should be prescribed by a pain-management specialist, who, from the start of treatment, establishes a regimen designed to smoothly get you off of or to avoid narcotic painkillers. This specialist will focus on easing your pain, promoting healing, and protecting you from overdoing it.

As for other types of pain, including chronic headaches, nerve pain, backaches, arthritis, and muscle and tendon pain, we have good news: You can put the brakes on pain without drugs. In many cases, you can slash your discomfort by 20% to 60%. For two-thirds of you, these techniques (see below) will help slash your narcotic pain-pill doses, too. This "combo plan" can also brighten your mood and deepen your sleep.

If you've got chronic pain that won't quit, take the upper hand with these four steps:

  1. Pair hot and cold therapy with exercise. Physical activity may be the last thing you want to do when something hurts, but for soft-tissue problems that trigger low back pain, for example, exercise (e.g., walking, stretching, and maybe swimming) combined with 20 minutes of heat on the tender area at least twice a day pays big dividends—such as cutting your need for prescription pain pills by 50% and boosting the odds you'll be back to work 50% sooner.

    Exercise and ice are a good combination for other pain triggers. For arthritis, for example, exercise can focus on strengthening muscles around the joints, relieving pressure. Ice acts as a natural anesthetic and reduces inflammation. Plus, when ice is removed, blood flow increases, and that carries away bad things that cause inflammation.
  2. Watch your weight. Do extra pounds add to pain? Yep. Every 10 pounds of excess weight puts another 30 to 70 pounds of added pressure on your knees and feet with every step. Added weight also increases your odds for low back pain, tension and migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, abdominal pain, and chronic widespread pain, not to mention heart disease, cancer, dementia, impotence, and skin wrinkling. The good news is losing weight takes the pressure off to help relieve pain.
  3. Manage stress daily and meditate. Turning inward for a few quiet minutes eases tension that makes pain feel worse. You harness the power of your brain's alpha rhythm, a brain wave that tunes out distractions such as pain. Meditation also sharpens memory. That's good news because chronic pain can take a toll on your ability to remember names, dates, and where you left the car keys, for example. Progressive muscle relaxation (i.e., tightening and then releasing your muscles slowly from head to toe) eases joint aches, headaches, rheumatoid arthritis pain, and even inflammatory bowel disease symptoms. Even mini-meditations, during which you let go of tension and let pain float away (try it for 10 minutes at a time) can do a lot to make the agony subside.
  4. Use topical pain relievers. These halt pain signals before they reach your brain so you get relief without pills and pill side effects. (You may still experience some side effects if a medicine is absorbed through your skin, so remember to drink plenty of water whether taking pills or applying lotions or creams). Options include over-the-counter creams and prescription-only patches containing capsaicin (the same compound that gives red peppers their fiery zing), as well as prescription creams containing stronger pain drugs.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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