3 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), exercise, 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 three 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 (1-7).

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 (8;9). 

3.  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, but it may also help relieve pain (10-14). For example, studies show that cognitive-behavioural therapy helps reduce the frequency and intensity of chest pain (11). 

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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  1. Hole J, Hirsch M, Ball E, et al. Music as an aid for postoperative recovery in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet. 2015; 386:1659-1671.
  2. 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.
  3. Kühlmann AYR, de Rooij A, Kroese LF, et al. Meta-analysis evaluating music interventions for anxiety and pain in surgery. Br JJ Surg. 2018; 105(7):773-783. doi: 10.1002/bjs.10853. 
  4. Sakamoto JT, Ward HB, Vissoci JRN, et al. Are nonpharmacologic pain interventions effective at reducing pain in adult patients visiting the emergency department? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med. 2018. doi: 10.1111/acem. 
  5. Aguero-Millan B, Abajas-Bustillo R, Ortego-Mate C. Efficacy of nonpharmacologic interventions in preoperative anxiety: A systematic review of systematic reviews. J Clin Nurs. 2023; 32(17-18):6229-6242. doi: 10.1111/jocn.16755. 
  6. Tola YO, Chow KM, Liang W. J Clin Nurs. Effects of non-pharmacological interventions on preoperative anxiety and postoperative pain in patients undergoing breast cancer surgery: A systematic review. 2021; 30(23-24):3369-3384. doi: 10.1111/jocn.15827.
  7. Sibanda A, Carnes D, Visentin D. A systematic review of the use of music interventions to improve outcomes for patients undergoing hip or knee surgery. J Adv Nurs. 2019; 75(3):502-516. doi: 10.1111/jan.13860.
  8. Zaina F, Cote P, Cancelliere C, et al. A Systematic Review of Clinical Practice Guidelines for Persons With Non-specific Low Back Pain With and Without Radiculopathy: Identification of Best Evidence for Rehabilitation to Develop the WHO's Package of Interventions for Rehabilitation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2023; 104(11):1913-1927. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2023.02.022.
  9. Zhu GC, Chen KM, Belcastro F. Comparing Different Stretching Exercises on Pain, Stiffness, and Physical Function Disability in Older Adults With Knee Osteoarthritis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2023; 17:S0003-9993(23)00405-7. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2023.07.001.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Williams ACC, Fisher E, Hearn L, et al. Psychological therapies for the management of chronic pain (excluding headache) in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020; 12; 8:CD007407. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007407.pub4.
  13. Fordham B, Sugavanam T, Edwards K, et al. Cognitive-behavioural therapy for a variety of conditions: an overview of systematic reviews and panoramic meta-analysis. Health Technol Assess. 2021; 25(9):1-378. doi: 10.3310/hta25090.
  14. Rosser BA, Fisher E, Janjua S, et al. Psychological therapies delivered remotely for the management of chronic pain (excluding headache) in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2023; 8:CD013863. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD013863.pub2.

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