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The lifestyle approach

Couple with bikes on beach
A healthy lifestyle is the most important way to get relief from pain and improve your quality of life. The human body is a set of interrelated systems, so when you take care of yourself in one way, it can help you feel better in other ways. Here are a few places to start:

  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Exercise moderately, regularly
  • Eat nutritious foods
  • Expose yourself to daylight and fresh air
  • Actively treat anxiety and depression
  • Pace your activities to avoid overexertion

Alternative therapies

What if lifestyle changes aren’t enough? Alternative therapies (listed below in alphabetical order) may be a good next step.

In fact, some studies have shown these therapies to be more effective than prescription pain relievers — especially the ones where you participate actively. For example, when you exercise or meditate, you’re an active participant. The more you take control and ownership of your treatment plan, and the more you participate in the treatment itself, the better your outcomes are likely to be.

Be aware that treatments such as the ones on this list are usually recommended in combination with others, based on each patient’s individual needs. To make sure your treatment plan is as effective as possible, please talk with your doctor. The importance of a multimodal (holistic) approach can’t be overstated.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches how cognition and emotion can affect the intensity of the sensations you feel in your body, how trauma can rewire the brain to interpret threats where none may exist, and how personal values can serve as a compass to help patients re-engage in physical and social activities.

Acupuncture involves pricking the skin with strategically placed needles, stimulating muscles and nerves to relieve pain. In an international study of 18,000 participants, acupuncture was found to reduce pain by 50 percent.

Biofeedback is designed to help you become aware of your body’s functions and, potentially, to learn to control them in order to avoid headaches, stress-related muscle pain, and other natural causes of persistent pain. With electronic sensors measuring your heart rate, breathing, perspiration, and skin temperature, biofeedback combines objective observation with deliberate practice to empower you to relieve your pain, yourself.

Chiropractic therapy involves adjusting the structure and alignment of the body — particularly the spine — to relieve pain. Chiropractors may also recommend exercises to improve stability and strength, offer training on how to sit and stand correctly, and encourage the use of heat, ice, and other therapies to treat pain from multiple angles.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can cause pain and heighten your sensitivity to it. Similar to talk therapy, CBT involves working with a therapist to identify problems and develop skills to improve your mental health and support your physical well-being.

Meditation or mindfulness, when properly taught, is a lifelong skill that can yield great results. According to The Atlantic, a Wake Forest University study “showed an approximately 40 percent reduction in pain intensity ratings during meditation when compared with non-meditation.”

Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) is hands-on care. Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine use their hands to diagnose and treat muscle pain, increase mobility, and promote healing.

Man running

Physical Therapy focuses on the prevention and management of physical impairments, injuries, and disabilities. It may include manual therapies like OMT, heat and ice packs, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, dry needling, stretching, range of motion exercises, strengthening routines, low-impact aerobic conditioning, and more.

Therapeutic Massage, sometimes called myofascial release or deep tissue massage, involves direct manipulation of the body to relieve pain by reducing stress, anxiety, and muscle tension.

Over-the-counter medications

Pain relievers like acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), can help to relieve mild to moderate pain and are often underutilized. They’re widely available at low prices throughout the country and are generally considered low-risk. Do keep in mind, however, that even over-the-counter drugs may come with risks. When in doubt, talk with your doctor.

Prescription medications

Prescription pain relievers may be an appropriate way to bring pain down in some cases; for example, opioids, derived from the narcotic opium, can block your body’s ability to transmit pain to your brain. These may be useful for pain related to surgery or cancer.

However, opioids come with significant risks. Side effects may include drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath, potential overdose, and death. They’re also highly addictive. A PubMed study showed that more than half of those who receive “90 days of continuous opioid therapy remain on opioids years later.”

Furthermore, their effectiveness at relieving pain drops off dramatically over time.

Some examples of prescription opioids include:

  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Tramadol (Ultram)

If your doctor prescribes opioids for you, please follow directions, be cautious in how you use them, and don’t rely on medication to cure your pain in the long term.


Next: Learn more about opioids »

Find local resources to help you understand and treat pain

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» Organizations and support groups

Find local resources to help you understand and treat pain

» Classes and events

» Organizations and support groups