Non-Medication Pain Relief for Chronic Pain

IMAGE For people who suffer from mild to moderate chronic pain, medication may offer relief. But many people find they can gain long-term control over their pain through complementary methods. Pain can be a chronic condition, just like hypertension or diabetes that you need to learn to self-manage and control.

The Options

In addition to traditional pain relievers, nondrug methods of pain relief may help you gain that control. Some techniques, like imagery, relax the muscles, help you sleep, and distract you from symptoms.While some techniques require little expertise or help from others, some may require instruction from a professional. Patients can seek advice from a chronic pain specialist who can coordinate all aspects of management, including physical therapies and other techniques.Below are examples of the many nondrug options that are available.

Applying Heat or Cold

Most of us are familiar with holding an ice pack on a twisted ankle or lying on a heating pad for a sore back. But hot and cold treatments can be used in other ways. For example, moist heat, which is often more effective than dry heat, can be applied with a warm towel or a soak in the tub. A small paper cup filled with water and kept in the freezer can become an excellent tool to apply to a painful area, while iced washcloths can be used to cover a larger area.When using heat or cold therapy, do this for only 15 minutes at a time. Allow the area to return to normal body temperature before reapplying the therapy. Some people obtain added relief by alternating heat and ice. Others use heat before exercising and ice after.Always place a towel between the cold or heat and the skin. Never lie directly on a heating pad, and if it feels too warm, take it off.


The relaxation response is an array of beneficial physiological effects associated with focused relaxation, some of which may reduce the perception of pain. For best results, make relaxation a part of your daily routine.There are a number of ways to invoke the relaxation response, and many audio and video downloads are available to help. One popular approach is to get in a comfortable position, take several deep breaths, and then focus on your breathing, or a word or sound, while passively avoiding intruding thoughts.

Muscle Relaxation Exercises

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that may be effective for both muscle spasm pain and stress reduction. It involves focusing your attention on each muscle group until it feels heavy and relaxed. You usually begin in the feet and gradually progress upward.

Imagery Exercises

Imagery, which often accompanies the management of pain through relaxation, allows you to visualize what it would be like to let the pain go. If you know what is causing the pain—for instance a pinched nerve in the spine—the idea is to picture the encroaching vertebral space opening and freeing the trapped nerve. By calling on a variety of senses, you can take yourself to a favorite place, like the beach or the mountains and redirect your thinking away from physical pain. Music, nature sounds, and instructional audio make it easier for beginners to escape to a mental paradise.


Biofeedback offers a measurable response to relaxation and imagery techniques. Through the use of sensors connected to a computer, you receive visual or auditory cues that indicate an increase or decrease in muscle tension, heart rate, and skin temperature. Using this feedback, you train yourself to control body functions that you normally don't even think about. Biofeedback may be useful in chronic pain or other conditions associated with muscle spasm or tension, like some headaches.

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