Alternatives for Managing Chronic Pain

Last updated: October 2022

Chronic pain is pain that lasts for longer than 3 months. Some rare diseases can cause significant pain in the body. This leads people who live with chronic pain to seek out ways to manage it.1

While doctors may prescribe pain medicines, not everyone wants to take these drugs long-term. Some people do not like the side effects or the risk of addiction that come with opioid pain medicines. Fortunately, there are alternative options to manage your chronic pain.1

No one solution works for everyone, but there are many approaches and strategies you can try, such as:1

  • Exercise
  • Biofeedback
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Acupuncture
  • Diet changes
  • Sleep
  • Heat or cold

Exercise

When you are in pain, exercise may feel like the last thing you want to do. However, limiting your activity can make pain worse. This is because muscles weaken from lack of exercise, which can make joint problems worse. Activity has been shown to reduce pain as well as prevent future pain.2,3

Gentle stretching and low-impact activities like walking or swimming usually can be done safely. If you have been inactive for a while or have restricted movement due to your condition, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about possible exercises.2,3

Biofeedback

With biofeedback, the goal is to control your bodily functions, like heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Biofeedback can be helpful for reducing pain. There are different biofeedback methods and devices available, including some for home use. Others are used in a physical therapy clinic or medical center.4

Mindfulness practices

Mindfulness practices include meditation and relaxation strategies. The goal of these practices is to learn to relax the body and calm yourself. Many mindfulness strategies begin with breathing exercises. Focusing on your breath can lead to more relaxation and less stress. Studies have found that mindfulness can improve pain and depression symptoms.1,5

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a part of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves the use of thin needles placed in specific areas of the body to balance the energy in the body. This energy is known as qi or chi. Acupuncture can have positive effects on well-being, including improved sleep and digestion. It can also help decrease pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.6

Not everyone finds acupuncture helpful. However, it has been proven to be safe and effective for many people with chronic pain.6

Anti-inflammatory diet

The idea behind the anti-inflammatory diet is that some foods increase inflammation and others reduce it. Since chronic inflammation itself can cause pain in the body, reducing the inflammation may reduce pain. Generally, foods that increase inflammation include red meat, dairy, and grains. Eating a variety of vegetables can help reduce inflammation.7

Sleep

Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to reduce and manage chronic pain. Not getting enough sleep can make your body more sensitive to pain. Lack of sleep can also increase feelings of pain. But, chronic pain may also make it hard to get good sleep. To improve your quality of sleep, experts recommend following good sleep hygiene practices. These practices may include:8

  • Going to bed at the same time each day
  • Following the same bedtime rituals every night
  • Avoiding long naps
  • Not exercising for at least 4 hours before bedtime
  • Limiting liquids to reduce the chance of needing to go to the bathroom at night
  • Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially late in the day

Heat/Cold

Heat and cold treatments are 2 of the simplest approaches for pain. Heat from heating pads or warm baths can increase circulation and reduce joint stiffness and muscle spasm. Cold compresses can ease pain by reducing swelling and numbing the area.9

Who can I talk to about my pain?

Pain management specialists are doctors who have special training in treating all kinds of pain. This includes acute pain, chronic pain, and even pain due to cancer. Treating pain often requires a combination of approaches. Pain management specialists understand the different treatment options and can make suggestions for you. You may need a referral to a pain management specialist from your primary care doctor.10

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