When you’re in pain, seemingly nothing else matters. Whether it’s a dull ache or a stronger sensation, pain easily interferes with your ability to enjoy life and even function normally from day to day. Yet, for millions of Americans living in chronic pain, pain has become a way of life.
More than one in four Americans suffers from pain on a daily basis,1 often to the point it interferes with sleep, work, concentration, exercise and socialization. In time chronic pain can also lead to loss of self-esteem, depression, anxiety and even isolation, as sufferers may find others have a hard time relating to and understanding their hardship.
Among the most common types of pain are arthritis, lower back, bone/joint pain, muscle pain and fibromyalgia,2 although pain can also take on many forms, changing locations or intensity daily or even hourly in the same person. Cancer pain, headaches and migraines are also very common.
Effective Pain Management Can be Hard to Come By
What makes chronic pain even more difficult to deal with is often a lack of effective, long-term solutions. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs remain among the most popular treatments, with 84 percent and 60 percent of pain sufferers trying them, respectively, according to an ABCNews/USA Today/Stanford University Medical Center poll. However, side effects and lingering pain can still be a problem.
In fact, the same poll found that only 59 percent of those who saw a doctor for chronic pain received a “good amount” of pain relief.
Further, 11 percent felt they had “hardly any” or “no control at all” over their pain — a frustrating and often debilitating place to be in.
There are, however, many pain relief options out there, some that you may not yet be aware of. Because pain is often such a complex issue to treat, and the methods that work highly varied depending on your individual situation, adding one, two or several of the following strategies to your arsenal may give you the much-needed relief you need.
Best of all, the following options are completely safe and natural, which means they can be used successfully by just about everybody.
What you’ll notice is that many of these strategies use the power of your mind to help your physical body overcome pain. Often, when you focus your mind on healing, relief follows.
Nine Drug-Free Options for Pain Relief
Meditation keeps your mind focused on the present, which makes the experience of pain less intense. Originating in Eastern spiritual traditions, meditation is now a common form of mind-body medicine practiced by people of all cultural and religious backgrounds.
In a study by researchers from the University of Manchester in England3, it was found that people who regularly meditated found pain to be less unpleasant, possibly because they spent less time anticipating it, which blunted its emotional impact.4
If you’re new to meditation, you can still benefit. A separate study found that after just a single hour of mindfulness meditation training over a three-day period, participants felt less pain while meditating and also experienced less pain sensitivity when they were not meditating.5
Many cities now offer local classes to learn the basics of meditation, but you can get started by finding a quiet location, sitting in a comfortable posture, then focusing your attention on your breath, an object or a mantra (a meaningful word or phrase). If you find your mind wandering, simply bring it back to your focal point without judgment. Prayer, tai chi, qi gong, yoga and journaling can also offer meditative benefits, so choose the form that feels best for you.
Acupuncture, an ancient form of traditional Chinese medicine, involves inserting thin needles into your body to stimulate specific points and regulate the flow of “qi” (vital energy) throughout your body. This practice is widely used for many types of pain, ranging from low back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome to osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.
Research to date has been promising, with acupuncture showing benefits for:
- Treatment of joint pain and stiffness in breast cancer patients6 (pain severity declined, physical well-being increased and 20 percent of patients taking pain medication no longer needed the medications following acupuncture treatment)
- Osteoarthritis of the knee or hip7
- Chronic headaches and migraines8
- Low back pain9
In fact, acupuncture has been found to be twice as effective at relieving lower back pain than medications, although a sham acupuncture treatment provided similar benefits.10
Whether or not some of the benefits of acupuncture may be through a “placebo effect” remains to be seen, but either way many people experience pain relief from this ancient treatment.
3. Healthy Diet
By choosing your food carefully, you can help to prevent inflammation in your body, a condition that can lead to physical pain in your muscles, joints and tissues over time. Chronic inflammation is a leading cause of numerous chronic disease and pain.
Highly processed and high-sugar junk foods, such as pastries, French fries, candy, soda, fast food, refined white flour, etc., promote inflammation in your body, whereas fruits and vegetables are naturally anti-inflammatory.
4. Massage Therapy
Massage therapists use a variety of techniques, including kneading, tapping, pressure and deep circular movements, to relieve a variety of conditions, including pain. According to a survey by the American Hospital Association, nearly 91 percent of respondents agreed that massage was effective in reducing pain.
Further, according to the American Massage Therapy Association, massage stimulates your brain to produce endorphins (natural pain-relieving chemicals) and studies have shown that massage therapy:11
- Promotes relaxation and alleviates the perception of pain and anxiety in cancer patients
- Reduces post-traumatic headaches better than cold-packs
- Reduces pain and muscles spasms in patients who have had heart bypass surgery
A separate study also found that massage therapy provided some immediate pain relief for patients with advanced cancer.12
For best results, look for a reputable and qualified massage therapist who is experienced in helping with pain relief.
5. Chiropractic Care
Neck pain, back pain and headaches are among the primary reasons that people first visit a chiropractor, and for good reason — chiropractic care can help your spine and other body parts to get back into proper alignment, which helps relieve pain and supports the body’s natural healing processes.13
According to the American Chiropractic Association, studies have shown that patients treated by chiropractors for low back pain had greater improvement after one month than patients treated by family physicians.14
Chiropractic care has also been proven to provide significant relief for headache pain and neck pain, as well as provide treatment for joint pain.
6. Laughter Therapy
When you laugh, your body releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers that also contribute to a sense of well-being. This may help to reduce your pain directly, while also distracting you from the pain, similar to meditation, and providing a wonderful form of stress relief.
Indirectly, laughter therapy, which is, as it sounds, using humor therapeutically to get you to laugh more often, can help to relieve pain by:15
- Relaxing your muscles
- Easing digestion and soothing stomachaches
- Promoting relaxation and better sleep
- Enhancing oxygen intake
- Boosting your immune system and circulatory system
Music can be extremely soothing not only for your mind but also for your body. By way of distraction and relaxation, music is a form of pain relief that’s as simple and enjoyable as it is effective.
In one small study, patients with back, neck or joint pain experienced a 20 percent decrease in pain after listening to music for one hour a day for seven days, compared to a 2 percent increase in pain in the control group.16
Music has also been found to help reduce post-surgical pain,17 chronic and cancer pain, along with reducing patients’ need for pain-relieving medications.18
So whenever the mood strikes, put on your favorite musical artist and let the sounds help soothe you.
Like laughter, exercise prompts the release of pain-relieving endorphins, which can help to block pain signals from reaching your brain. Exercise also works to boost your mood, strengthen bones, muscles and tissues around joints, and provides you with more energy.19
Regular exercise can also help with weight control, which can be beneficial for certain types of pain, especially joint pain and back pain.
Research studies to date show promising results for exercise and pain relief. Among patients with rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, aerobic and strength training exercises helped improve endurance, strength and functional ability.20
For those with fibromyalgia, one study found pool exercise significantly improved chronic widespread pain,21 while knee strengthening exercises have been found to significantly reduce knee pain and improve knee function in those with knee pain. 22
Gentler forms of exercise, such as yoga, can also be rotated into your routine. Researchers at Harbor UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California found that engaging in 90-minute yoga sessions three times a week for one month resulted in significant reductions in frequency and severity of chronic pain. Patients were also able to cut back on pain medications and had improvements in mood and anxiety levels.23
If you’re in pain, you need to be careful not to overdo exercise or engage in high-impact activities that could worsen your condition. Consulting with a knowledgeable personal trainer can help ensure your workouts are beneficial for your individual health needs.
Hypnosis works by heightening your responsiveness to suggestions that can alter your physiological state, behaviors and emotions. Although its success depends in large part on whether or not you are open to hypnotic suggestions, studies have shown significant benefits for pain relief from hypnotic techniques.
In one meta-analysis of 18 published studies, 75 percent of participants experienced substantial pain relief from hypnosis for both acute and chronic pain.24 This technique seems to be successful for a wide variety of pain conditions, and has demonstrated marked improvements for headache, backache, fibromyalgia, cancer pain, and others.
Pain can be a complex issue to treat and resolve, but there are many safe and effective solutions that can make you feel well again. Remember, you don’t have to live with pain, and you certainly don’t have to suffer in silence.
Experiment with several of the complementary techniques listed above to find out which strategies work best for you. You may find that a combination of techniques, or a rotating schedule of various options, will be the most effective way for you to find relief.
1. Lancet. 2008 May 3;371(9623):1519-25.
2. 1999 National Pain Survey conducted for Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical
3. Pain May 20, 2010
4. LiveScience.com June 6, 2010
5. The Journal of Pain 2010 Mar;11(3):199-209. Epub 2009 Oct 22.
6. Journal of Clinical Oncology, Vol 28, No 7 (March 1), 2010: pp. 1154-1160.
7. Arthritis & Rheumatism, Volume 54 Issue 11, Pages 3485 – 3493
8. BMJ. 2004 Mar 27;328(7442):747. Epub 2004 Mar 15.
9. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Acupuncture for Pain
10. Archives of Internal Medicine 2007 Sep 24;167(17):1892-8.
11. American Massage Therapy Association, The Power of Touch for Pain Relief: Basic Facts, October 2003
12. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2008;149(6):369–379.
13. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Chiropractic
14. American Chiropractic Association, Chiropractic Research
15. Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Laughter Therapy
16. Journal of Advanced Nursing Volume 54 Issue 5, Pages 553 – 562
17. Journal of Advanced Nursing Volume 33 Issue 2, Pages 208 – 215
18. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 2.
19. MayoClnic.com Exercising with Arthritis
20. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews 2009 Oct 7;(4):CD006853
21. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine 2009 Sep;41(9):751-60.
22. BMJ 2009;339:b3170
23. Annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, May 2001, American Council on Exercise
24. American Psychological Association, Hypnosis for the Relief and Control of Pain