5 alternative options for pain relief

The Bottom Line

  • Drugs are the “go-to” solution for pain relief but may also cause side effects and serious health complications.
  • There is evidence that alternative, non-drug options such as relaxation techniques (including music & yoga), exercise, acupuncture and cognitive behavioural therapy can provide relief for many common causes of pain.
  • Alternative therapies may also be used to complement and enhance medication-based treatment and pain management.

Tell someone about an ache or pain and one of the first things they’ll ask is: “Are you taking anything for it?” In many ways we’re lucky that medical science has produced more, stronger and faster acting medications to help cure whatever ails us, and as a society we’re more than happy to take advantage of the “quick fix” of prescription or over-the-counter medicine. But there’s a downside to all that pill popping. Hazards range from minor side effects to serious and even deadly consequences, most notably when certain kinds of drugs are used to manage chronic pain.

The tide is beginning to turn as more healthcare professionals advocate for medication reviews, deprescribing and the use of “alternative” or non-drug therapies for managing pain. Even when medical treatments or prescription drugs are vital for recovery, people can still benefit from alternative therapies with proven benefits, which can be used to complement and enhance treatments.

Here are five that have been tested by researchers. Click on the links for details about the studies.

1.  Get your groove on

There’s a reason why music is such a major part of life for most people: it can entertain, inspire, cheer, soothe, motivate and relax. But can it relieve pain? According to research evidence, listening to certain kinds of music before, during and/or after surgery helps reduce pain, anxiety and depression (1).

2.  Get a move on

Like it or not, if we want to stay healthy and mobile into our senior years we need to make exercise a part of our daily routine. It’s hard to stay motivated and active though, especially when something (back, knees, hips, old football injury) is acting up again. But don’t give up: research shows exercise can be one of the best ways to relieve back pain or knee pain as well as build strength and stamina (2-5). 

3.  Try acupuncture

Acupuncture, long used in Chinese medicine, is now popular and widely practiced in North America to improve health and well being. Thin needles inserted into the body at specific points help to reduce pain and improve bodily functions. For example, research shows that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of headaches and migraines (6-9). It may also reduce short-term pain in people with knee osteoarthritis, while improving physical functioning in the short- and long-term (9;10).

4.  Change your mindset

Cognitive-behavioural therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented type of psychotherapy that helps people develop personalized coping skills and change harmful thoughts or beliefs. It’s often used to treat depression and other mental health problems (11), but it may also help relieve pain – particularly pain that isn’t due to a specific disease or condition. For example, studies show that cognitive-behavioural therapy helps reduce the frequency and intensity of chest pain (12). 

5.  Breathe and relax

Relaxation techniques and activities like yoga – including stretching, breathing and meditation – promote health and wellness by calming the mind, reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. What’s the evidence on pain relief? Research shows yoga helps ease pain and disability associated with low back pain (13).

Thinking outside the (pill) box

No one wants to be in pain and if there’s a pill that can make it disappear, most people will find it hard to resist. But drugs don’t always help everyone and if they do, short-term pain relief could come at the expense of potentially serious side effects and longer-term health problems. Non-drug strategies are worth trying as a safer first line of defense.

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Author Details


  1. Tsai HF, Chen YR, Chung MH, et al. Effectiveness of music intervention in ameliorating cancer patients’ anxiety, depression, pain and fatigue: A meta-analysis. Cancer Nurs. 2014; 37(6):E35-50.
  2. Searle A, Spink M, Ho A, et al. Exercise interventions for the treatment of chronic low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clin Rehabil. 2015; 29(12):1155-1167.
  3. Juhl C, Christensen R, Roos EM, et al. Impact of exercise type and dose on pain and disability in knee osteoarthritis: Systematic review and network meta-regression analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2014; 66:622-636. 
  4. Hurley M, Dickson K, Hallett R, et al. Exercise interventions and patient beliefs for people with hip, knee or hip and knee osteoarthritis: A mixed methods review. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018; 4:CD010842. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010842.pub2. 
  5. O’Connor SR, Tully MA, Ryan B, et al. Walking exercise for chronic musculoskeletal pain: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2015; 96:724-734.
  6. Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for the prevention of tension-type headache. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016; 4:CD007587. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007587.pub2.
  7. Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016; 6:CD001218. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub3. 
  8. Giannitrapani K, Holliday J, Miake-Lye I, et al. Synthesizing the strength of the evidence of complementary and integrative health therapies for pain. PainMed. 2019; 20(9):1831-1840. doi: 10.1093/pm/pnz068. 
  9. Vickers AJ, Vertosick EA, Lewith G, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: Update of an individual patient data meta-analysis. Pain. 2018; 19(5):455-474. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2017.11.005. 
  10. Lin X, Huang K, Zhu G, et al. The effects of acupuncture on chronic knee pain due to osteoarthritis: A meta-analysis. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2016; 98(18):1578-1586. doi: 10.2106/JBJS.15.00620. 
  11. Gartlehner G, Gaynes BN, Amick HR, et al. Comparative benefits and harms of antidepressants, psychological, complementary, and exercise treatments for major depression: An evidence report for a clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2016; 164:331-341.
  12. Kisely SR, Campbell LA, Yelland MJ, et al. Psychological interventions for symptomatic management of non-specific chest pain in patients with normal coronary anatomy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015; 6:CD004101.
  13. Cramer H, Lauche R, Haller H, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain. Clin J Pain. 2013; 29:450-460.

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