Traditional Pain Management and Alternative Treatments

A woman suffering from back pain
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Chronic pain can be difficult to treat because the underlying cause is not always understood. Traditionally, chronic pain treatment has been managed with medications. However, medication alone does not help everybody.

Non-pharmaceutical chronic pain treatments are also commonly prescribed by doctors in an effort to get the pain under control. There are also a growing number of people who find relief through complementary and alternative medicines. Here are some typical chronic pain treatments.


  • NSAIDs: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. These medications are available over the counter or in prescription form and work to reduce swelling that often contributes to pain.
  • Opioids: Opioids are narcotic drugs that include codeine and morphine. These medications require a physician’s prescription as they cause sedation, and can be life-threatening when used inappropriately.
  • Corticosteroids: A class of steroids such as cortisone or prednisone available in pill form or as a shot. These reduce swelling, which can decrease pain in some cases. Corticosteroids do not contain pain-controlling substances; however, once inflammation is reduced so is the pain.
  • Antidepressants: Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and imipramine increase the body’s production of chemicals like serotonin, reducing the number of pain signals that reach the brain.
  • Topical analgesics: Available over the counter in cream or patch form. These medications disrupt the pain cycle by giving sensory nerves another sensation to focus on, such as cold or tingling.
  • Anti-convulsants: These medications require a physician’s prescription and are used to treat pain caused by neurological disorders. Because anticonvulsants inhibit certain kinds of nerve transmissions, they can be useful in treating migraines or neuropathy. Gabapentin is a commonly used anticonvulsant that is effective against neuropathic pain.

Non-Pharmaceutical Treatments

  • Ice: Though it is typically used to treat acute injuries, ice reduces swelling which can provide relief for chronic pain as well. Ice also has a numbing effect on the skin and thus a topical analgesic effect.
  • Heat: Heat increases blood flow thus increasing relaxation of muscles and loosening joints. Heat is particularly helpful in the treatment of arthritis.
  • Massage: Deep or superficial massage can relax muscles and joints; however, aggressive massage can also trigger a pain reaction.
  • TENS: Transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TENS) involves placing electrodes on the skin over the pain site. The electrodes create a small current that feels like pins and needles. A similar product is the Quell, which sends electrical signals that "stimulate dense nerve clusters triggering endogenous pain relief mechanisms in the body."
  • Relaxation: Guided imagery or relaxation techniques can be done in a group setting or by listening to an audio recording. Relaxation helps to relax muscles and provide a distraction from the pain in order to offer relief.
  • Physical therapy: In addition to performing pain-relieving modalities such as ultrasound or electrical stimulation, physical therapists can teach you more efficient ways to move. These healthcare professionals can also give you an exercise program designed specifically for you, to improve your strength and reduce your pain.

Alternative and Complementary Treatments

Many people with chronic pain choose alternative and complementary therapies as a supplement to Western medicine, or as their main chronic pain treatment.

Although not endorsed by the FDA, Eastern traditions such as acupuncture and herbal remedies are growing in popularity. Other complementary approaches to chronic pain treatment include specialized diets, energy medicine, yoga, chiropractic care, and hypnosis.

It may be many months before you find the right combination of treatments that work for your pain. Your doctor is your most valuable resource in figuring out what works for you.

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Article Sources

  • ACPA. ACPA Medications and Chronic Pain. September 2007. 

  • Davis, Gail. "A Better Understanding of Chronic Pain” ACPA Chronicle. September 2008:10-11.

  • Krames, Elliot. National Pain Foundation. Pain Medicine – Using Tools of the Trade. 

  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. Pain: Hope Through Research.

  • National Pain Foundation. Using Complimentary Therapy to Relieve Pain.