Nearly everyone experiences pain at one point or another in their lives. It can manifest in many ways, from headaches to back pain to muscle soreness, and can have a multitude of causes, like injury or surgery.
For some, this pain is temporary, but for many others, it lasts for an extended period and becomes chronic. According to WebMD, at least 100 million Americans, and more than 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from some kind of chronic pain. This type of pain is categorized as persisting for 3 to 6 months or longer, either as consistent pain or on a consistently recurring basis.
When discussing pain management, it's vital to address the use of opioids and the dangers they bring. Yes, these types of pain relief can be helpful, but they can be highly addictive. In 2019, it was reported that 12.1 million people over the age of 12 misused opioids in the US. Not only that, but 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers. Misuse of these drugs can have harmful effects including drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, euphoria, slowed breathing, and more.
How to control pain without medications?
With traditional pain relief methods being potentially dangerous, it's essential to understand the alternative therapies for pain management. Holistic pain management can be an excellent alternative to opioids or a method of lowering one's reliance on them.
A holistic approach to pain management involves using your body's natural responses to trigger healing and recovery with natural pain relief. Compared to prescription pain killers, holistic pain management techniques result in fewer side effects, fewer bodily resistance long-term, less chance of becoming dependent, and tailored & targeted pain solutions. Instead of fighting your body, alternative pain treatment works with it.
When it comes to a holistic approach to chronic pain, there are many options available. In this guide, we'll break down the various alternative pain management techniques, how they work, what they're good for, and best practices for holistic pain relief.
Hot and Cold Therapy
For some, pain can stem from damage to the muscles or joints. Hot and cold therapy can help relieve this pain by either increasing or decreasing blood flow in the affected area. Of all the holistic remedies for pain, alternating heat and ice therapy is the most well-known and used. This section will address how each method works, the difference between hot and cold therapy, benefits, and more.
What is heat good for?
Heat therapy can relax the muscles by dilating the blood vessels and increasing blood flow. Out of the two, heat therapy is more likely to help with chronic muscle pain and joint pain caused by arthritis.
There are two types of heat therapy: dry heat and moist heat. While dry heat can be helpful, moist heat is found to work more quickly (2 hours compared to 8 hours of dry heat) and even have enhanced benefits. Dry heat may be more beneficial if you are looking to affect deep muscle tissue, as it can be safer to apply for more extended periods.
There are many different ways to receive heat therapy as well, including:
Soaking the affected area in a tub of warm water, between 92 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Capsicum cream, which causes a sensation of heat over the affected area.
Heat should be applied for 20 minutes, up to 3 times a day unless otherwise directed by your doctor. Avoid using heat therapy on external injuries such as open wounds, infections, or burns, or if the area is numb or inflamed. Be sure to avoid excessive heat and consult with your doctor for advice on how long and how often to use heat therapy.
Cold therapy can reduce inflammation and numb sore tissues by decreasing blood flow. This type of treatment can be most helpful in treating a joint or muscle that may be strained or swollen due to a recent injury and is best when applied within 48 hours of the injury. It can also help reduce migraine or headache pain.
Different ways to receive cold therapy include:
Cold compresses or ice packs applied to the affected area. Like heat compresses and wraps, these can come in many sizes and designs to best accommodate the particular area of the body you may be treating.
Soaking the affected area in a cold bath.
Massaging the affected area with an ice cube or ice pack for up to 5 minutes.
Avoid applying ice directly to the skin, on open wounds, or if you have a nerve disorder that affects blood flow. You will also want to avoid cold therapy if you think there is a chance of cramping in the affected area.
For some pain, such as osteoarthritis and muscle soreness, alternating cold and heat therapy can also be useful.
Benefits of Hot & Cold Therapy
There are many benefits to alternating ice and heat therapy; they include:
- Better circulation
- Less swelling and inflammation
- Muscle strain improvement
- Better range of motion
- Less muscle soreness
- Energy and alertness increase
The hot and cold recovery method is a proven natural alternative to NSAIDs. However, it can be tricky to use and even harmful if done incorrectly. For an in-depth guide into heating vs. icing injuries, best practices, and more, read our guide on alternating hot and cold therapy for pain.
Hot/Cold Therapy Product Recommendations
What is TENS Unit Therapy?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation therapy, better known as TENS therapy, is the process of delivering low voltage electric currents to the affected area to reduce pain. Stimulating the nerves in this way releases endorphins to block the pain signals sent to the brain.
These currents are delivered via conductive patches that adhere to the skin called electrodes. They typically hook up to a portable TENS unit, which produces the electrical pulses, with wire connectors. Electrodes are also often reusable until the adhesive wears off. Cleaning your skin before use and keeping them in storage bags when not in use can make them last longer.
TENS Therapy Uses
TENS therapy units can treat many different types of pain, including both acute and chronic muscle pain, joint pain, and back and neck pain. For example, it is commonly used by those living with osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, and tendinitis.
Most over-the-counter TENS devices allow you to adjust the current to a range of intensity levels. When receiving TENS therapy, you might experience a tingling or buzzing sensation, but it should never hurt. Be sure to set it to an intensity that is effective while still comfortable.
Using TENS therapy for pain management presents many benefits, including:
- Electrotherapy treatment is a drug-free alternative
- They can be used long-term without side effects
- They're versatile for treating various ailments with pain
- Users are able to control and customize their TENS electrical stimulation
- Most over-the-counter units are portable electric stimulation machines
- TENS therapy pain relief is easy to use
- Many are over-the-counter and don't require a prescription
It's important to note that electrotherapy devices do not aid in the healing process, only to relieve pain. We highly recommend using other forms of pain management simultaneously with TENS therapy for best results.
You should avoid using a TENS unit if you have any implanted device, such as a pacemaker or spinal cord stimulator. You also should not use TENS therapy on open wounds; on your head, face, or throat; or on both sides of your chest at once.
Learn More About TENS Therapy
TENS Units for pain offer a safe, effective, and portable method of relieving pain. Our ultimate guide breaks down TENS therapy to cover everything you need to know, including:
- What is a TENS Unit?
- Why Use a TENS Unit
- What Health Experts Say About TENS Therapy
- Which TENS Unit is Best? Things to Consider.
- And more
The #1 Selling TENS Unit
"So thankful I purchased this. I had experience with a smaller, less powerful unit bought at CVS, but even that was helpful. This TENS unit is a lifesaver for me in helping to manage my pain issues. The best part is that you can set it and then there are safety covers that protect the unit, so you don't have to worry about settings being accidentally changed while wearing. I often wear it on continuous mode for hours, even leaving the house with it all strapped on and hidden under my clothing. It has been a God-send. In my opinion, this device is more effective than pain medications and muscle relaxers (for those of us who have built up a tolerance to medications), and is certainly less toxic to the system." -Amazon reviewSHOP NOW
Red Light Therapy
What is Red Light Therapy for Pain?
Red light therapy for pain management involves using low red wavelengths to target areas in pain. Specialized red light therapy devices for pain use red and infrared light in the 660 to 900 nm range on the light spectrum. These devices are placed over the injury for a specified amount of time.
When exposed to red and infrared light, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production is sparked. ATP provides cells within your body energy. This boost in energy gives the cells the ability to speed up the healing process.
Does Red Light Therapy Work for Pain?
You might be wondering, "does red light therapy really work for pain?"
The answer is yes, it does. NASA used red light therapy in the 1990s to grow plants in space. After realizing it wasn't feasible, they found out it served to relieve astronauts of pain. Since 2002, the FDA has approved red light therapy at home for pain.
Red light therapy is effective in pain relief and quicker healing because of its ability to reach deep into muscles, nerves, and ligaments. The wavelengths this treatment uses have been studied and proven to:
- Treat wounds
- Repair tissues
- Improve blood flow
- Reduce pain and inflammation
- Enhance joint health
- Reduce injury and recovery time
- Enhance bone repair and growth
- And improve the immune system
And because of its targeted method of pain relief, red light therapy treats a variety of pain types, including:
- Chronic pain
- Joint pain
- Neck pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Diabetic foot ulcers and foot neuropathy
- And rheumatoid arthritis
The downside to red light therapy is the studies are still ongoing. While many have reported pain relief using this method, more research is needed to thoroughly understand how and why it works.
Learn More About Red Light therapy
Red light therapy uses the power of the light spectrum to enhance and relieve pain. The science behind it is rather complex but can help you better understand why it's effective. Our guide covers all the essentials, including:
- What is Red Light Therapy?
- Understanding the Light Spectrum
- The History
- Types of Pain it Treats
- And More
How Does Ultrasound Therapy Work?
Ultrasound therapy is a form of pain management used by physical therapists that uses sound waves to penetrate tissue and promote healing. Typically, the therapist will apply ultrasound gel to the affected area or the head of the ultrasound probe and focus on a small area to allow the sound waves to penetrate the skin best. The treatment will last around 5 to 10 minutes.
There are two types of ultrasound therapy: thermal and mechanical
If you have myofascial pain or a sprain that hasn't healed, you may benefit from thermal ultrasound therapy. On the other hand, carpal tunnel syndrome or other pain involving swelling or scar tissue may be better helped by mechanical ultrasound therapy.
Benefits of Ultrasound Therapy
- Tissue tension relief: Musculoskeletal conditions, comprising of 150+ individual conditions such as arthritis, fractures, back pain, etc., occur when there is tissue damage to muscles. Ultrasound therapy can provide tissues the needed heat to relieve tension and affect soft tissue cell metabolism.
- Increased blood flow: An increase in blood flow can aid in reducing swelling and promotes healing.
- Deep penetrating heat: Compared to other pain relief methods, ultrasound therapy penetrates deeper into musculature or joint tissues.
- Scar tissue breakup: Tiny vibrations caused by ultrasound therapy affect the fibers which create scar tissue. Ultrasound for scar tissue break up can create an increase in range of motion.
Thermal ultrasound therapy uses a consistent application of soundwaves to create a sensation of heat, which stimulates metabolism to encourage healing.
Mechanical ultrasound therapy uses pulses of sound waves, which can decrease inflammation and swelling.
The use of ultrasound for pain relief should only be conducted by a licensed professional. They should be moving the ultrasound probe at all times to avoid burning the tissues. You should not receive ultrasound therapy over areas with broken skin, plastic implants, or malignant tumors or if you have a pacemaker. It should be noted that the efficacy of ultrasound therapy is low.
Acupuncture is an ancient form of physical therapy originating in China, where small needles are inserted into specific pressure points on the body. This treatment is believed to stimulate parts of the nervous system then and release neurotransmitters and pain-relieving chemicals to provide relief for a wide range of conditions.
These points, referred to as energy points or "qi" in Chinese medicine, differ depending on the part of the body being treated. For example, some pressure points for treating lower back pain include the feet and the back of the knees, while pressure points for treating migraines include the back of the shoulders and neck.
You may be wondering, "Does acupuncture actually work?" Many are skeptical, but acupuncture has become a well-researched treatment with positive results in many clinical trials.
For example, research done in 2012 reviewed the effects of acupuncture by giving a group of nearly 20,000 people with chronic pain, either an authentic acupuncture treatment, fake treatment, or no treatment. Those receiving the genuine treatment experienced significantly more relief than both those receiving the phony treatment or no treatment at all, allowing the researchers to conclude that acupuncture is more than a placebo and genuinely effective.
Does Acupuncture Hurt?
You may experience some soreness or bruising that will go away in a few days after treatment, but acupuncture is safe and should not be painful if performed accurately. If you decide to try acupuncture for your pain, be sure to receive the treatment from someone qualified and certified. Never try to perform acupuncture on yourself.
By nature, acupuncture is a very universal treatment and is used to treat a variety of ailments. The following are research-backed studies on acupuncture:
- Allergy reduction: A 2015 review of 13 studies involving over 2,000 participants found acupuncture to reduce nasal symptoms, the need for medication, and the antibodies produced in response to allergens compared to individuals not receiving acupuncture. Another 2015 review found acupuncture to have high efficacy for treating perennial allergic rhinitis.
- Chronic pain: A 2012 systematic review on acupuncture for chronic pain found it to be effective in reducing various conditions including chronic headaches, back, and neck pain.
- Hypertension: Another review involving 106 patients with hypertension found this treatment to significantly reduce blood pressure in four weeks after treatment.
- Menstrual cramps and PMS: A 2002 study on acupuncture for premenstrual syndrome found acupuncture to have a success rate for treating symptoms of 77.8% compared to 5.9% in the placebo group.
- Migraines: A 2017 study on the long-term efficacy of acupuncture for migraines found it to be effective in long-term treatment. The 24-week trial involved 4 weeks of treatment and 20 weeks of follow-up. Those who received true acupuncture reported reduced migraine pain less often.
The Pros and Cons of Acupuncture Treatment
Few side effects
Drug-free pain relief
It can be used in unison with other pain relief methods
Targeted pain relief
Provides pain relief for various conditions
Professional prerequisites: It takes 3-4 years to become a practicing acupuncturist
Acupuncture is sometimes covered by insurance
Makes you feel more energized
|Possibility of infection|
Incorrect needle placement can cause pain
Pain relief may take time for some conditions
Can be expensive
Requires a professional, can't be done on own
Can be more expensive compared to other treatments
How long does it take for acupuncture to work?
Results will vary based on the individual, condition, level of pain, and more. Some may experience results instantly while it may take two or more sessions to feel the results.
How often should you get acupuncture?
The level of occurrence for acupuncture treatments will vary based on the level of pain which patients are in. However, it's common for a single patient to have one to two treatments per week and even up to six to eight treatments in a month. When first starting out, attend one treatment and see how long the pain relief lasts.
How to prepare for your first acupuncture?
There are no preparations required for acupuncture. The majority of the preparation is in actually finding the right acupuncturist based on your needs and condition. When it comes to acupuncture, all you have to do is show up.
How much is acupuncture?
Acupuncture pricing will vary on the type of acupuncture, time, experience, location, and more. Average fees for a first session may cost $120 to $300 which can include a medical exam, consultation, and treatment. Additional follow-up rates may be between $75 to $300.
Orthopedic Braces and Supports
Orthopedic Brace Uses
Orthopedic braces stabilize, align, and protect the muscles, joints, and bones in certain parts of the body. They're typically most helpful in alleviating pain when recovering from an injury, as they help to correctly position and restrict the movement of injured joints or muscles.
These braces are useful to treat injuries on a variety of body parts, including the ankles, legs, knees, collarbone, elbows, wrists, and arms. Orthopedic back braces can also be used to promote proper posture and stabilize the abdomen and spine to relieve back pain and in cases of scoliosis.
Medical supports and braces are typically made of nylon and neoprene, which allows them to be flexible, supportive, and breathable. They fasten securely with Velcro and should be appropriately fitted for optimal performance. You should always consult your doctor for instructions on using orthopedic support to prevent further injury.
How does kinesiology tape work for pain?
Kinesiology tape stabilizes and supports your muscles and joints to help with rehabilitation or enhance your body's performance. Typically made from a blend of cotton and nylon, the tape differs from athletic tape and orthopedic braces in its flexibility, mimicking the skin's elasticity and allowing for a full range of motion. It also features a strong adhesive capable of staying on for three to five days, even through showers and physical activity.
Using kinesiology tape is theorized to have many more profound effects on the body. It is thought to reduce pain by compressing or decompressing the skin, which stimulates the release of enkephalin and inhibits the pain pathways in the affected part of the body. Kinesiology tape is also thought to create extra space beneath the skin and between joints, reducing pressure and improving blood flow and lymphatic circulation. Athletes also believe that the tape improves their performance by re-training the muscles and joints to perform optimally.
Although these theories are not backed by conclusive scientific evidence, anecdotally, many have found kinesiology tape helps manage pain and enhance performance. It is also widely recommended by physical therapists. Your physical therapist can assess your condition and show you the proper ways of taping for your condition if they decide kinesiology taping is right for you.
How long does kinesiology tape stay on?
Strengthtape kinesiology tape can be worn for up to five days. However, it's best to wash the target area first to benefit from its maximum allotted lifespan. Other things that may impact the length it can be worn include physical activity, contact with water, level of perspiration, and more.
Can you reuse kinesiology tape?
Kinesiology tape cannot be reused because it relies on stickiness and elasticity for effectiveness. Once those two diminish, then the tape loses its usefulness.
Kinesiology Tape for Pain Relief
"Have had a torn Rotator Cuff injury - never surgically repaired for over 14 years along with Achilles' tendon injury and a couple of broken foot bones . I have used this tape for many years for healing those injuries and found relief from pain and can return to almost normal functioning. The advantage is the ability to shower while wearing and it remains in place for at least 6 days on average. I also have very sensitive skin when it comes to adhesives but this tape does not produce a negative reaction. It allows a complete range of motion but at the same time is supportive. I highly recommend." -C. CrookSHOP NOW
Pain Relief Gel
Pain relief gel can be an easy and portable way to find some relief from minor aches, as well as arthritis, joint, and back pain. Most pain relief gels will include anti-inflammatory ingredients such as salicylates and counterirritants such as menthol or eucalyptus oil. Some may also contain ingredients that block pain receptors, like capsaicin.
Carex's Sub Zero pain relief gel, for example, includes menthol and an anti-inflammatory herbal blend called cat's claw. As with many pain relief gels, you can purchase this in large, gallon sizes, but also in smaller, on-the-go 5 mL, 3 oz., and 4 oz. sizes for convenience.
Pillows and Cushions
You may find it helpful to use a memory foam cushion to manage pain when sitting or sleeping. These cushions can relieve pressure on your joints and muscles and ease discomfort associated with arthritis and muscle strain. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes to best suit your individual needs.
For example, a knee pillow has an ergonomic design to fit comfortably between your knees and provide spinal alignment to reduce lower back and leg pain while lying down. On the other hand, a lumbar support pillow's shape promotes good posture and relieves lower back pain while sitting. These are just a few examples of the many available pillow and cushion options that can help reduce pressure and relieve your pain.
Although it may seem more straightforward than other methods of pain management, finding the right pillow or cushion can significantly improve your quality of sleep. It can also make long periods of sitting, like at work or while traveling, much more comfortable.
Relaxation and Mind-Body Techniques
Our minds and our thoughts can have a direct influence on the way that we physically feel. They affect our neurotransmitters, which not only tell us how to feel emotionally but also impact most of our body's functions. Because of this, relaxation and other mind-body techniques can help reduce and manage pain.
One relaxation technique that may be helpful is meditation. Spending a few moments a day focusing on your breathing and clearing your head can reduce stress and ease the tension that may be contributing to your pain.
You may also find visualization to be a useful tool to relieve tension and pain. WebMD recommends picturing your pain as a visual object, defining its size, shape, and color in your mind. Then, change that image into something smaller, peaceful, and more pleasant. You can also simply visualize something that relaxes you, like the details -- sights, smells, sounds -- of a tranquil place.
When practiced regularly, these relaxation techniques can significantly reduce the stress that may be making pain worse.
While no single pain management technique can soothe the pain entirely, finding relief can be accessible through a combination of these techniques. Be sure to talk to your doctor about what might work best for you.
About the Author
Stephanie Schwarten is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelors degree in Professional Writing. She specializes in content marketing as well as both developmental and copy editing.
About Carex Health Brands
Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.
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