Alternatives to opioids for treating chronic pain

As America grapples with the consequences of opioid painkiller addiction, the medical community is finding other ways to help individuals with chronic pain — both chemical and non-chemical.

Exercise is one of the most simple, yet promising alternatives.

“Exercise not only promotes healing because it increases circulation, but it also has been shown to reduce your pain level,” said SFM Director of Medical Services Ceil Jung, RN, BSN, CCM. “Studies have shown that exercise is the best way to treat your pain in many cases.”

The idea can seem counterintuitive at first, as it seems like exercising will make pain worse, Jung said, but studies have shown the opposite.

A study published in the journal Clinical Rheumatology showed that programs including aerobic, resistance and flexibility exercises significantly reduced pain in those with chronic pain conditions.

It’s all about helping people regain function so they can do the things they want to do.

Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that a weekly yoga class increased mobility for chronic low back pain sufferers more than other common types of treatment, according to Harvard Medical School .

In some cases, doctors might inject pain relief medication in the area that’s hurting to help patients get to the point where they feel they can exercise, Jung said.

Other chronic pain treatment options

In addition to exercise, doctors are turning to a number of other options to treat chronic pain, including:

  • Other medications and supplements
    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends acetaminophen (Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, ibuprofen) as first-line treatment for low back and other types of chronic pain. Turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory that’s easier on the stomach than pills.
  • Acupuncture
    This traditional practice, which originated in Asia, of inserting hair-thin needles into the skin at certain points of the body is now an accepted, mainstream practice for treating chronic pain.
  • Lifestyle changes
    Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, quitting smoking and losing weight can all be effective in reducing chronic pain.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
    This form of talk therapy helps people learn to change negative thoughts and behaviors and improve coping skills so that they can regain function and change their perception of pain.
  • Addressing psychological and social contributors
    Pain may originate from a biological source, but psychological and social factors influence how an individual experiences it. Because of this, treating those other contributing factors, such as anxiety or depression, is sometimes used to treat chronic pain.
  • Virtual reality
    Studies show that virtual reality technology can be used to reduce all types of pain. The immersive quality of virtual reality can do a good job of distracting individuals from the pain .

These represent just a small sampling of the many treatments available. While treating chronic pain can be complex, it can make a huge difference in people’s lives.

“It’s all about helping people regain function so they can do the things they want to do,” Jung said. “Finding solutions to treat chronic pain really gives people their lives back.”

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