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Non-Drug Approaches to Managing Chronic Pain

Earlier this year, we looked at how chronic pain – a problem many construction laborers deal with on a daily basis – is most often treated with medication. By now, you’ve likely heard that using prescription opioids for chronic pain puts patients at high risk for dependence and addiction. Even non-opioid pain relievers like ibuprofen can lead to stomach ulcers and other health risks if used regularly.

So what are people in pain supposed to do? The best option, of course, is to prevent the pain from happening in the first place. But if that doesn’t work or isn’t an option, there are some alternatives to both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers that are worth trying.

Complementary Health Approaches for Pain Management

Complementary health approaches refer to the use of non-mainstream approaches combined with conventional medical practices. They tend to fall into two categories – physical therapies and mind-body practices – both of which provide a variety of options to treat pain without the use of prescription or OTC medication.

Complementary health approaches have been proven to help manage chronic neck, back and knee pain and ease pain associated with tension-related headaches. These approaches include:

  • Chiropractic/Spinal Manipulation: Chiropractors perform adjustments to the spine or other parts of the body, but also use other treatment approaches (heat, ice, electric stimulation) to correct alignment problems, alleviate pain, improve function and support the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
  • Massage Therapy: Massage therapists manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body to make the person feel better physically and improve function. Massage therapy has been found useful for alleviating chronic low back pain, neck pain and pain due to osteoarthritis in the knee.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture provides stimulation to various points of the body by penetrating the skin with thin, solid metal needles. Research suggests acupuncture is effective at easing back pain, pain from osteoarthritis of the knee, reducing the frequency of tension headaches and preventing migraine headaches.
  • Yoga: Yoga combines physical postures, breathing techniques and a meditation component. Yoga can be done in an organized class or alone by following along with a DVD, YouTube video, etc.
  • Meditation: Meditation encourages participants to become mindful of thoughts, feelings and sensations to produce a deep state of relaxation that enhances physical, emotional and mental wellness.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Relaxation techniques help combat stress-related health problems such as headaches, pain and sleep issues. They include biofeedback-assisted relaxation, breathing exercises, guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation. Research suggests relaxation techniques relieve musculoskeletal, neck and back pain and headaches.

Although these complementary health approaches have good safety records, they are not risk-free for everyone. Age, health status, behaviors and circumstances may affect the safety of complementary approaches. Consult your health care provider to make sure these approaches are safe for you and compatible with any conventional treatment you are undergoing or medication you are taking.

The LHSFNA’s new publication, Exploring Options to Manage Pain: Therapies and Mind-Body Practices, covers these treatment options in more detail. It also includes questions to ask your doctor and insurance company as well as recommendations for finding a licensed or qualified practitioner in your area. To order this publication and others, visit our online Publications Catalogue.

Future articles in Lifelines will examine individual complementary health approaches and pain management in more detail.

[Nick Fox]

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