While much of the country has been caught in the grips of an addiction epidemic for over a decade, doctors and patients alike are pursuing prescription opioid alternatives for pain management as a safer means of treatment.
When dealing with pain, whether it’s acute or chronic, long-term discomfort related to an injury or an ongoing illness can be extremely stressful for many people.
Pain affects every aspect of a person’s wellbeing, from their physical abilities to their mental acuity. It can also have a huge impact on a person’s mood.
The basic human instinct is to rid our bodies of pain as quickly as possible and it has become increasingly clear that treating pain without the use of opioid medications is preferable.
The history of opioids, a chemical derived from the poppy plant, and its use in treating pain stretches back to 3,400 BC. Ancient Sumerians referred to the poppy as the “joy plant.”
More recently, though, opioids have been used to manage pain after surgery and for severe injuries.
While opioids are incredibly effective for treating many different types of pain, they are also highly addictive. The over-prescribing of all forms of opiates has led to an opioid epidemic in the United States and around the world in recent years.
In truth, there are many safer alternatives for pain relief without opioids.
Now that the recommendation is to avoid opioids as the primary method of pain management, many people are exploring their options by seeking safe and effective approaches of moving past pain and into healing.
Here are 10 Opioid Alternatives for Pain Management
1. RICE Method
Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation are the four components of the RICE Method. This approach can be incredibly effective at allowing the body to heal some soft-tissue injuries, especially if performed early and for the proper duration.
RICE involves resting the injured area, meaning avoid any movements that can aggravate the injury even further. Icing the injured area helps to reduce swelling and can decrease the associated pain. Compression helps keep joints supported, and elevation of the injury above the heart helps to increase blood flow and healing.
2. Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications as Opioid Alternatives for Pain
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Alleve), are very effective for reducing swelling and pain when used as recommended. These are available over the counter without a prescription and are not habit-forming or addictive like opioids.
When combined with the RICE approach, many people find quick relief from pain and can return to some level of activity as long as it doesn’t hinder healing.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another OTC pain medication that can be effective for easing or reducing pain.
It’s important to follow the recommended dosage guidelines and avoid alcohol use or other drugs for healing to be most effective.
3. Massage, Yoga, Meditation, Mindfulness and Exercise
While some of these practices were frowned upon or considered “new age” treatments decades ago, there’s plenty of evidence now that they can be effective tools for decreasing or minimizing many types of pain without the use of prescription medications like opioids.
Massage and stretching (yoga) increases blood flow to soft-tissue, which has shown to decrease inflammation and speed healing.
Meditation and mindfulness are also known to counter stress and chronic pain by calming or reducing activity in areas of the brain associated with pain.
Finally, exercise not only strengthens our bodies against injury, it increases blood flow and oxygen intake, both of which improve the healing process. Even more importantly, exercise naturally produces endorphins, which are the body’s built-in pain relievers.
This doesn’t mean we should exercise on a sprained ankle, but as we heal, it is possible to workout in ways that will not exacerbate the injury.
4. Physical or Occupational Therapy
Physical therapy is an excellent example of how exercise helps us to heal. With PT, trainers provide movements to strengthen areas of the body that are still healing, as well as teaching effective stretching and warm-up techniques that keep the body limber and more protected against injuries.
With occupational therapy, patients can learn proper form for repetitive movements to reduce the chances of developing overuse injuries. This is especially useful for athletes and people whose jobs require repetitive movements.
5. EPAT / Shockwave Therapy for Treating Pain
EPAT / Shockwave Therapy is a non-invasive method for treating and healing pain, as well as decreasing injury related downtime.
EPAT stands for Extracorporeal Pulse Activation Technology. This treatment method delivers impulse-pressure waves deep into soft tissue to break up injury-related scar tissue, increase blood flow, slow inflammation, and create new blood vessels. All of this helps to speed up the healing process.
This type of treatment is also known as Extracorporeal Shock Wave Therapy, which many people simply call Shockwave Therapy or ESWT.
EPAT / Shockwave Therapy is a regenerative treatment approach performed in several sessions that can even be used to keep athletes or anyone else performing at high levels while they heal. It is recommended for a wide variety of treatable medical conditions affecting almost every area of the body.
6. Biologics and Regenerative Medicine
Biologics, like stem cell or platelet-rich plasma injections, are regenerative medicine treatment techniques that work wonders on soft-tissue injuries by helping the body regenerate soft-tissue that supports bone and muscle.
The combination of EPAT Therapy and Biologics together amplifies the regenerative aspects of treatment by increasing absorption and mobilizing stem cell recruitment at the specific point of injury. This combination therapy approach vastly improves the rate of healing.
Steroids are an incredibly powerful anti-inflammatory medication. Used occasionally under the right conditions, corticosteroid injections can decrease pain and increase mobility.
However, many physicians are hesitant to use steroid injections, especially on younger patients, because the medication can damage other healthy, surrounding tissue. Additionally, overuse of steroid injections has been known to weaken soft-tissue and can lead to further injury and pain.
8. Nerve Blocks
Nerve block treatment involves injecting numbing agents into nerves that cause pain in various parts of the body. One example is targeting specific nerves in the neck to block pain in the arm or face.
This approach can be very effective for managing pain and may even prevent some types of chronic pain from ever developing. Very often, relief will require several injections over time and might require repeated nerve block treatment sessions.
9. Nerve Pain or Antidepressant Medications
Some non-opioid medications have shown to be useful for relieving pain when prescribed off-label. They work by dampening signals from the brain located in the areas associated with pain.
Gabapentin (Neurontin) is a prescription medication used to treat epilepsy, although it has also shown to be effective for treating nerve pain caused by shingles or diabetes.
Effexor (Venlafaxine) and Cymbalta (Duloxetine) are prescription medications primarily used for depression and anxiety disorders, yet they also work as opioid alternatives for pain associated with fibromyalgia, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, or chronic muscle and bone pain.
The primary drawback of medications like gabapentin and some antidepressants is that they can have side effects, most commonly making people who take the meds drowsy or dizzy. The risks of addiction are minimal if any, depending on the drug, and they are often prescribed by doctors as opioid alternatives for pain management
10. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) offers a structured, psychological approach to managing pain. It involves the relationship between a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and is used to treat a wide array of disorders, from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of the reasons Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is such a good option for people managing pain is that it encourages an active, problem-solving approach to coping with pain.
With regular practice, people find that their mental and physical functioning and quality of life improves vastly.
Additional Opioid Alternatives for Pain Management
The list of opioid alternatives for pain management treatment doesn’t end with the ten approaches listed above.
There are many ways of treating pain without opioids that can be effective without the habit-forming risks of addiction caused by prescription painkillers.
Other opioid alternatives for pain treatment include:
- Chiropractic treatment
- Epsom salts
Each of these treatment methods works in its own unique way, and while they may not be appropriate for treating all types of pain, they can be used to target isolated areas of the body.
The medical community is now suggesting to avoid using opioids for treating pain unless it is absolutely necessary. Even then, it is recommended to only use them for a very short time, and only as prescribed.
In fact, many pharmacists are reluctant to fill prescriptions for opioids because of the high probability of misuse and addiction.
It’s important for everyone to understand pain is a message our bodies send that requires attention.
The desire for immediate relief is natural and understandable. But finding the root cause of the pain and treating it where it starts can provide safe and lasting results for healing the symptoms.