How to Manage Chronic Pain Without Opioids, According to a Medical Expert

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Chronic pain can be debilitating for many individuals. Managing pain in daily life is a constant struggle, but there are several ways to seek treatment for chronic pain and get back to living a full life. Stanley J Mathew, MD, UnityPoint Health, shares advice on how to manage chronic pain and explains treatment options that don’t involve opioids.

What is Chronic Pain?

First of all, what is the difference between acute pain and chronic pain? Pain is diagnosed as acute when it is sudden, intense, and short-term. It’s a protective mechanism, Pain is diagnosed as chronic when the sensation lasts for more than three - six months. During that period and after, the chronic pain symptoms can come and go, sometimes being very noticeable and other times being almost nonexistent. Chronic pain can affect many areas of the body, including chronic back pain, chronic neck pain, chronic abdominal pain , even headaches and other areas.

Chronic pain can be assessed and diagnosed by your doctor. History and physical exam, imaging , blood tests, MRI’s and X-rays are all methods to help your doctor identify your chronic pain. Once the pain is diagnosed as chronic pain, you and your doctor can start considering ways to begin treatment.

9 Treatment Options for Chronic Pain Without Opioids

While opioids were once of the most effective methods for treating chronic pain, they are now found to worsen chronic pain syndromes. They are extremely addictive and they can also lead to long term health problems if they are abused or taken at high doses. Thankfully, there are many non-opioid pain treatment options that do not carry with them the addiction rate, long term health risks, or the costs. Some include:

  • Physical Therapy - One of the main benefits of short- and long-term physical therapy is pain reduction. Physical therapy exercises increase blood flow to inflamed and injured body parts, increase mobility, and help to encourage the growth of muscle tissue. Arthritic joints, lower back problems, and other injuries are all treatable through physical therapy. The healing benefits of these exercises can dramatically reduce pain levels caused by injuries.
  • Massage Therapy - This is often recommended for people who suffer from chronic back pain.
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Health Psychology - This helps us rewire the brain, giving you tools to process your pain and designed to immediately improve your quality of life.
  • Non-Opioid Chronic Pain Medication / Injection Therapies - Our pain management teams at UnityPoint Health specialize in this to help patients with chronic pain. This can commonly include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), steroid injections, topical creams, or other medications. This typically requires a doctor’s referral.
  • Dietary Changes - Decreasing the number of foods in your diet that cause inflammation, such as red meat and processed foods, may help. Foods with antioxidants, including nuts, olive oil, dark chocolate, beans, fruits, and vegetables, help protect against chronic inflammation.
  • Cryotherapy - This is an age-old therapy that involves exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures to trigger powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-pain reactions from the body. Advanced cryotherapy systems expose the body to temperatures as low as -200 degrees Fahrenheit or -130 degrees Celsius. Cold exposure causes the body to flood the bloodstream with anti-inflammatory antibodies, as well as the anti-pain hormone dopamine.
  • Acupuncture - The therapy known as acupuncture is not a snake oil or pseudoscience-based medical treatment. Numerous clinical studies have proven that acupuncture disrupts pain signals traveling along neural pathways. Due to this ability, acupuncture is an extremely effective means to treat chronic pain. Acupuncture is commonly used to treat chronic lower back pain, spinal injuries, joint injuries, migraine headaches, and other common health issues.
  • Surgery - One of the most effective ways to cure a health issue causing chronic pain is surgery. If a surgical option is available, then it is oftentimes the quickest route to permanently resolving an injury that is causing moderate to severe pain. Not all chronic pain issues can be addressed with surgery. However, joint problems, spinal injuries, and others are typically great candidates for surgical treatments.
  • Alternative Treatments - Talk to your doctor about the benefits of meeting with a chiropractor or undergoing other forms of alternative treatment for chronic pain.

How to Manage Chronic Pain at Home

Track Your Pain & Identify Triggers - Consider tracking your pain symptoms daily. Keep a journal to track what kind of activities you did that day that may have caused your chronic back pain to flare up and track activities you did to alleviate your pain. Keeping a journal can help both you and your doctor understand what methods work for you and how often you should be doing them to treat your chronic back pain.

Reduce Stress – Studies have shown that stress can make you more sensitive to pain. Recognize your body’s stress response and learn how to cope with stress and anxiety in your everyday life with our 11 stress management activities that work.

Exercise – Exercise has been proven to help lower cholesterol, reduce risk of heart disease and control blood sugar levels, among other health benefits. Try starting slow, such as walking for health benefits. Talk to your doctor about an exercise routine that’s appropriate for you and determine what is manageable with your chronic pain.

Cut Out Smoking & Alcohol Smoking can be related to many negative health effects such as heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and others. Cut down or eliminate unhelpful substances like smoking and alcohol.

Talk to Your Doctor

Our UnityPoint Health doctors are here to support you and help find the best chronic pain management or treatment for you. Find a doctor.