Non-Opioid Pain Reduction: 11 Alternatives to Opioids for Pain Management
About 80% of new heroin users in the United States reported pain medication as their initiation to opioid use. More than 500,000 people are dependent on heroin in the United States as of July 2023.
More than 106,000 people died from drug-involved overdose in 2021, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids.
The thing about pain is that nobody can tell you that you aren’t feeling pain. Everyone’s pain perception varies from person to person.
or, “No, I don’t think your back is hurting.”
The problem with this is that some people know the doctor can’t tell you that you don’t feel pain, and they take advantage of this.
We would like to think that it is not as easy to get prescription opioids these days, but it’s not exactly difficult given different variables: how convincing a person is and whether or not someone’s relatives actually need prescription pain medication and have it available.
Unfortunately, if someone can convince a doctor that they’re in pain, they would probably prescribe medication to help manage it. They would, hopefully, first suggest non-opioid medications for someone to take before turning to opioids that have potentially horrific side effects.
What does this mean for people who really do have chronic pain, got addicted to opioids, need treatment for the addiction, and new ways to treat their pain?
This article will go over different and less risky solutions for pain management to arm you with different tools and actionable steps you can take to manage your pain in a safer way.
What is pain?
What is the science behind it?
Something about knowing the “how” and the reason for things helps us better observe and change how we react to them.
When we catch the doorframe with our pinky toe, the nerve endings of pain receptors (certain nerve cells) send signals to the brain that something is wrong, we are in danger, panic.
Did you ever notice that it takes a second or two to feel the pain after stubbing your toe?
That’s because the signal is sent from the nerve ending in your feet all the way up to your brain.
How do opioids relieve pain?
Opioids attach to nerve endings and quite literally block pain and even normal function, sending waves of euphoria throughout the body.
There are many different approaches you can take for pain reduction, but all of them tend to fall into one of two categories: holistic approaches and non-opioid medical procedure approaches.
Bookmark this article because we’re going in depth. From using your mind to control pain and the newest medical technologies, after seeing the vast world of alternative pain reduction techniques and a quick intro to metacognition (later on), you’ll be much more eager to try these out than turning to opioids.
1. Diet and Exercise
Nutrition and activity are arguably the most important focus for every human being, no matter what ails them.
It’s been said before, but think about it again: have you ever seen a fit person who eats a clean diet?
They look great, they’re happy, they make great decisions! It’s almost annoying.
“What gives? I wish I had those genes!”
Genetics is worthy of one other article and possibly several other articles altogether.
Our activity and what we consume on a daily basis affect how we express our genes and which genes we activate.
It’s no coincidence that highly processed food causes more inflammation and thus leaves us more sensitive to pain and more prone to flare-ups.
There’s an up-and-coming subcategory in fitness and nutrition that revolves around what to eat and which approach to exercise is best for you based on your DNA.
Some people react to carbs in different ways than others. Some people need way less protein than others. A common thread, however, is that great amounts of processed foods and sedentary lifestyles aren’t beneficial to anyone.
Massage therapy helps relieve pain by lowering muscle tension and increasing blood flow.
Muscles that surround pain areas tighten and build up in attempts to protect those specific nerve endings. When muscles tighten, blood flow is reduced.
Optimal blood flow is necessary to relieve tension and is easily achieved with massage. By increasing the circulation of blood through physical manipulation and massage, endorphins are released that, in turn, soothe the painful areas.
Highly tensed muscles can also put unwanted pressure on nerves, causing even more pain.
Massage is a great option and alternative to opioid medication.
Is it weird to treat pain with dozens of needles? Maybe at face value or when you put it that way, but acupuncture is a common recommendation to patients who experience severe pain.
Acupuncture is an old Chinese art and practice that involves using very fine needles to prick various “acupoints” through the skin.
The needles reduce pain by touching and releasing endorphins, which are your body’s natural hormone that lowers pain.
The acupuncturist may move the needles or twist them slightly to enhance the effects.
4. Stress Reduction
There are lots of ways to reduce stress: yoga, meditation, mindfulness, practicing gratitude, journaling, and support groups, to name just a few.
Reducing stress is easier said than done. If you could just snap your fingers and reduce stress, we would all be stress-free.
The challenge is that a lot of the time, it’s external factors that we let stress us out and disturb our peace.
Diet, exercise, massage, and everything else mentioned in this article will all play a part in managing stress.
It deserves to be talked about on its own, though, because if you must find what works best for you to reduce stress.
Some people like to use mindfulness and metacognition (the practice of being aware of what your brain likes to think about). There are entire books on this subject. Your mind is more powerful than you could ever dream. It’s scary.
If you’re wondering, it is 100% possible to rewire your neural connections, habits, and personality. Your brain even has the ability to change how you feel inside, including whether or not you feel pain.
Non -Opioid Medical Approaches
The following non-opioid pain reduction techniques are explained in less detail than the above approaches because they are more cut and dry and specific area-focused. With the exception of over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, these procedures are most appropriate for individuals who suffer from chronic pain. OTC medications are primarily prescribed to relieve temporary pain.
5. Pain Pumps
A pain pump has to be placed with surgery.
It enables allows medicine to be administered directly to the spinal cord.
Pain pumps are also called intrathecal (in-truh-THEE-kal) pumps, referring to the space around the spinal cord.
The doctor will fill a medication reservoir with the proper dosage so the patient can administer the medicine safely and effectively.
Delivering medication directly to the central nervous system helps reduce pain much faster than taking medicine by mouth.
6. Nerve Blocks
This procedure for treating pain without opioids entails medical injections that reduce inflammation and block pain signals.
Nerve blocks are used to treat pain, help in diagnosis, and allow damaged nerves allotted time to heal.
On its face, nerve blocks are anesthetic and/or inflammatory injections. They deliver medication directly to the associated area and as close as possible to the nerve.
Like the pain pumps mentioned above, they are always performed via injection and by a doctor.
Nerve blocks are usually needed anywhere between three to six times in a 12-month period.
7. Radiofrequency Ablation
RFA uses heat to destroy nerve tissue. The damaged nerve does, in fact, regenerate with time.
Using raid waves to heat an area of a nerve prevents pain signals from going up to the brain.
RFA procedures are appropriate for long-term conditions like chronic neck pain, chronic back pain, and severe arthritis.
The radio waves create a current to heat and burn a specific area of the nerve via a needle.
This procedure is used to reduce the volume of pain medications a patient is taking and to avoid or delay pain-related surgery.
RFA procedures are effective anywhere from six months to a year. It takes the manipulated nerve up to 2 years to rejuvenate.
8. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
TENS is another way to treat pain and an alternative to opioids.
These procedures involve using mild electrical currents to pain-ridden areas.
A TENS machine is a small, battery-operated device with leads attached to electrodes (sticky pads).
The electrodes are positioned directly onto the skin and near the affected area. The electric impulse creates a tingling sensation.
TENS is a way to utilize electrical surges and lower the volume of pain signals to the brain.
This approach helps relax your muscles, reduce pain, and even produce endorphins.
Arthritis, pelvic pain from endometriosis, and sports injuries are some common conditions that TENS can treat.
9. Non-opioid OTC Pain Medications
The most common over-the-counter pain medications used to treat pain are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen, and topical medications.
Again, these types of medication are more commonly used for temporary pain management (acute pain or post-surgery pain). In most cases, these are not recommended long term.
NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, relieve pain, decrease inflammation, and reduce swelling.
Acetaminophen meds like aspirin alleviate pain and fever by more effectively blocking the brain from receiving pain signals from pain receptors.
While acetaminophen mostly works in the brain, NSAIDS affect the brain and the rest of the body.
Ibuprofen (an NSAID) inhibits COX enzymes. NSAIDs go throughout the entire body and bind to target receptors if they are “activated” or “open” (sending pain signals). Every pain receptor the NSAID passes that isn’t active is passed over.
Chronic back pain affects about 8% of adults, according to this Georgetown article.
Back pain affects everything in your life. Your activity, how you feel, and what you are able to do thusly affecting your confidence.
That same article talks about how a large amount of people with back pain also experience depression, anxiety, and anger problems.
If you suffer from chronic pain, you know. Maybe you have gone to a chiropractor to relieve pain in your neck or back.
A chiropractor treats pain with hands-on stretches, alignments, and adjustments.
Someone with chronic pain usually sees a chiropractor 1 to 2 times a month.
Pressure is applied to associated joints to adjust and realign for better positioning, which reduces pain.
These procedures are almost always in addition to other pain treatments.
11. Physical Therapy
Post-surgery pain, injuries, and chronic pain are commonly treated with physical therapy.
This type of treatment not only alleviates pain but also helps pinpoint the actual source and weak or stiffened areas associated with pain.
Physical therapy appointments include light exercises, therapeutic massage, and light stretching.
Exercising and stretching are implemented to strengthen muscles and create more efficient blood flow.
As mentioned earlier, exercise is a great alternative and holistic approach to non-opioid pain management.
Depending on your health, individual needs, and current circumstances, physical therapy could be a great place to start for finding and treating the source of pain and alleviating nerve pressure.
Whew! That was a lot. It’s finally time to wrap it up.
You deserve each alternative to be well-explained and in one location, and that’s the goal of this article.
All of these techniques are wonderful and effective ways to reduce post-surgery and chronic pain. And all are significantly less risky and harmful than opioids.
As we’ve covered, there are many other non-opioid approaches to pain management and reduction.
Take diet, exercise, and practicing mindfulness into consideration. They might sound cliche, but they’ve become cliche because they absolutely work miracles.
If chronic back or neck pain just isn’t letting up, then consider some of the above-mentioned alternative medical routes.
Dealing with chronic pain or unbearable post-surgery pain can easily lead one down a dark path of substance use disorder.
However, there is hope. The best time to reach out for help is now. Contact us today.