Alternative or Complementary Ways to Control Pain

There are many ways to help manage pain. Medicine is one way, but other methods can be used instead of or with medicine.

Talk with your healthcare provider about any therapy that you are thinking about using, including any kind of supplements, changes in your diet, or devices. Products and therapies can be useful for some people but worthless for others. Some remedies can be dangerous. Examples that may be dangerous are coffee enemas for cancer, motor oil for arthritis, and iron supplements for energy.

Therapies that may be helpful include:

Acupuncture. Acupuncture uses needles inserted into specific points on the skin by a licensed practitioner. It has been shown to be effective in treating some forms of pain, such as headache, arthritis of the knee, and chronic back pain. It appears to stimulate the release of the body’s natural painkillers.

Art and music therapies. Drawing, painting, or working with clay can help you express feelings that you may not be able to put into words. Music therapy uses music to treat physical and mental health problems. Music therapy may involve singing, listening, moving, playing instruments, and other creative activities. Art or music therapy may distract you from the pain.

Biofeedback. Biofeedback therapy trains you to be aware of your body and how it works. You are connected to a machine that senses your body’s response and gives you feedback in the form of lights or sounds. During the treatment sessions you will be asked to relax and pay attention to how you feel and how your feelings change the feedback. You can learn to control some of your feelings with biofeedback.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy takes the approach that how you think affects how you feel and behave. This therapy helps you recognize negative ways of thinking and change your thoughts and mood and this can lead to changed behaviors. It can help you feel less anxious and stressed, which can help decrease your pain.

Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation. Chiropractic providers use their hands to move and adjust the joints, especially the joints of the spine. It may ease pain in the back, neck, or joints. Sometimes it helps relieve the pain of headaches, muscle spasms, and inflamed nerves. Treatments should involve slow, gentle movements of the head, neck, and spine. Adjustments that are too rapid can cause injury.

Osteopathic physicians are trained in medicine, plus how to use their hands to move and adjust the spine, joints, and muscles. Stretching and putting pressure on painful parts of your body may improve flexibility and reduce pain.

Distraction. Focusing on something else can be a good way to temporarily relieve pain. Try focusing on music, hobbies, social activities, TV, or conversation with family or friends. This can work well while you are waiting for pain medicines to take effect. Listening to music during painful procedures can be helpful.

Exercise. Range-of-motion exercises can improve function and lessen pain. Another kind of exercise is water therapy using swimming pools, hot tubs, or whirlpools. Exercises such as qi gong or tai chi can also help control pain. Exercising regularly can help you feel and sleep better. Your healthcare provider or a physical therapist can recommend an exercise program for you.

Herbs and supplements. Some herbs and supplements may help reduce pain. Yerba mate tea has been found to decrease pain during chemotherapy. Valerian may reduce pain and help you sleep better. Feverfew might help prevent migraine headaches. Probiotics included in some brands of yogurt can reduce belly pain and bloating.

In some states, a healthcare provider can prescribe marijuana to treat severe pain.

No herb or dietary supplement has been proven to consistently or completely relieve pain. Supplements are not tested or standardized and may vary in strengths and effects. They may have side effects and are not always safe. Herbs can interact with other medicines you may be taking. Talk with your provider or pharmacist before you use herbs and supplements to manage your pain.

Hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy uses a state of deep, relaxed focus to treat medical or mental health conditions. This kind of therapy can help change feelings or behaviors in your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind stores feelings, thoughts, and urges that you are usually not aware of. While you are hypnotized, the therapist can suggest different ways to experience the pain, so that it may bother you less. Hypnosis may be done by a licensed therapist, or you can purchase programs for self-hypnosis.

Ice and heat. You will learn over time whether ice or heat helps you the most. As a general guide:

  • Ice. During an acute flare-up of pain, ice may be more helpful than heat at first. Try putting an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on the painful area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time, 1 to 4 times a day.
  • Heat. After the first day or so (or earlier if you don’t have any redness or swelling), heat may be more comforting to the painful area. You can apply heat with warm baths, showers, or hot tub. Or you can use heating pad set at low or a covered hot water bottle for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. To prevent burns to your skin, follow directions on the package and do not lie on any type of hot pad. Don’t use heat if you have swelling.

Magnetic therapy. Pulsating electromagnetic therapy has been used to help bone fractures heal. It may be helpful for osteoarthritis, migraine headaches, multiple sclerosis, and sleep disorders. Magnet products include shoe insoles, mattress pads, pillows, belts, jewelry, headwear, and bandages. Do not use magnetic therapy if you have a medical device such as a pacemaker. The magnet may interfere with the device.

Massage. Massage therapists work on muscle and other soft tissue to help you feel better. For example, they may use long, smooth strokes and put pressure on painful muscles, tendons, and joints. Massage can be given by a trained massage therapist or a caregiver. You can also buy massage tools or devices to add vibration or heat to a massage. A gentle stroking massage is safest. Avoid a vigorous massage by someone untrained in massage. Don’t massage areas that are red or swollen.

Food. Foods can affect pain. Some foods may make headaches, joint pain, or digestive pain worse. It may help to keep a diary of the food you eat and your pain symptoms. The diary can help you see how foods you are eating may affect your pain.

You may find that you feel better when you eat foods that contain omega-3 oils, such as salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Other foods that may help improve your mood and decrease your pain are low-fat and nonfat milk products, almonds, Brazil nuts, dark chocolate, and dark leafy greens, such as spinach. Coffee, in small amounts, may improve your mood, but too much caffeine or the acid in coffee (even decaf coffee) might make you feel worse.

Comfort foods have been used for years to ease pain and improve low mood. They are different for each person but usually include foods like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and ice cream. These foods can be soothing, but if you eat too much they can lead to weight gain, high blood sugar, and guilt.

Orthopedic devices. Wraps, pressure stockings, splints, and neck collars may help relieve pain and help you do tasks more easily.

Relaxation. Relaxation reduces tension in the muscles, which can also reduce painful pressure on nerves running in or through muscles. This helps keep pain from getting worse. Relaxation can give you more energy. It may reduce anxiety and allow other pain relief methods to work better. You may be able to fall asleep more easily. Relaxation skills include:

  • Deep breathing: Focus on taking slow deep breaths
  • Mental imaging: Picture yourself in a calm place and let your muscles relax
  • Mindfulness: Focus only on the present moment, without judging and without thinking of the past or future
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and relax your body, one muscle group at a time

Yoga and meditation are other ways to relax.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). TENS relieves pain by sending small electrical impulses to your nerves through patches put on your skin. The electrical impulses block pain.

Select an alternative or complementary medicine provider carefully. Seek treatment from a licensed professional if you can. Ask about their training and experience. Ask questions and get referrals from people you know and trust.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-02
Last reviewed: 2014-06-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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