Nonpharmaceutical Alternatives to Painkillers

Experiencing chronic pain is no laughing matter. It can profoundly impact your quality of life, your ability to function—both physically and mentally—and undermine your livelihood. Maybe the only thing that’s worse than experiencing chronic pain is when you have to rely on pharmaceuticals to manage your pain. The causes of pain are complex and so is their treatment. Ideally, we can identify and remove the cause of a specific pain or discomfort, but that’s often very difficult to achieve. So, physicians specializing in pain management often try a range of different pain relief strategies, including pharmaceutical drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, corticosteroids and opioids, with varying degrees of success.

It is now front-page news on an almost daily basis that the widespread prescription of opioid painkillers has contributed to the abuse of and addiction to these medications across the United States. Tens of thousands of Americans have died from overdoses of synthetic opioids, families and communities in every corner of the country have been devastated. The urgency of finding alternatives cannot be overstated.

Acupuncture is well-known for its ability to relieve pain. While certainly not a panacea, it nonetheless ought to play a much more prominent role in the management of pain but, unfortunately, is not as widely available and consistently offered as it should, considering how safe it is compared to pharmaceuticals.

The research in support of acupuncture for pain relief is too extensive to cite here in much detail. Considered a milestone publication, though, is the FDA’s Blueprint for Prescriber Education for Extended-Release and Long-Acting Opioids in May 2017. In it, physicians are now asked to learn about nonpharmaceutical pain management options, including acupuncture, to be able to educate their patients and refer out for these therapies, as appropriate.

Acupuncture, if practiced by a qualified provider, is remarkably safe. It has been shown to naturally activate the release of endorphins and other pain-modulating substances in the body, and to promote immune function and tissue healing. In contrast, opioid medications carry the risk of serious side effects such as addiction, respiratory depression, and death. They cover up symptoms without eliminating the cause. The beneficial effects of acupuncture accumulate from treatment to treatment, while the use of opioids is accompanied by the development of tolerance and need for dosing escalation (along with mounting side effects), which may result in accidental overdosing. In addition, acupuncture can be part of a strategy to reduce opioid use and manage addiction. The NADA protocol, also known as acudetox, is an example of using acupuncture in addiction treatment settings and has been around since the mid-1970ies.

Of course, not all pains require opioid medication, and most physicians will initially try NSAIDs, especially for acute pain. They can be effective for many people, especially when inflammation may be part of the picture. While many of these drugs are available over-the-counter, this doesn’t mean they are benign and have no side-effects. Rather, their long-term use has been shown to affect not only the digestive system negatively but to also impede tissue healing. So, consider that inflammation involved in pain, such as in arthritic conditions, should primarily be addressed with natural antiinflammatory strategies that have potential to heal the underlying causes. Nutrition, detoxification, phytotherapy and neutraceuticals can all be useful tools in this process.

There’s also research evidence to support manual and energetic healing therapies other than acupuncture as strategies in pain management. They include massage, chiropractic, osteopathy, physical therapy, myofascial release, Reiki, light therapy, bioresonance, homeopathy, and more. It may take some trial and error to find out which therapy or therapies are the best fit for someone. It may also require some time for benefits to build. And any of these therapies may be a useful and safe complement to pharmaceutical pain management.

Mindfulness, meditation, therapeutic yoga and tai chi have helped many people deal with chronic pain and restore a sense of well-being. Sometimes, as in cases of acute low back strain, it may be appropriate to just wait it out instead of medicating the pain away. Patience and gradual return to gentle movement may be all that’s needed for the body to recover from a painful condition such as this. These approaches are supported by recommendations contained in A Clinical Practice Guideline issued by the American College of Physicians.

In spite of the FDA and ACP guidelines, your physician may not know enough about these wide-ranging options to give you solid advice and appropriate referrals. Don’t let that keep you from casting your net a little wider, educating yourself about your options, and asking for recommendations regarding nonpharmaceutical pain management.

© 2018 Christiane Siebert

About the Author:

Christiane Siebert is a Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine who likes to explore the myriad ways in which we can use integrative holistic medicine to enrich our lives.

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