If you’re facing surgery, have recently been in an accident, or are being diagnosed with chronic pain, you’re probably looking at getting an opioid prescription. Opioids have been the go-to painkiller of choice for decades, usually because they’re the most efficient way to help humans cope with pain. That’s because they work using a mechanism produced in the brain, binding with existing opioid receptors to dull pain and cause you to feel better.
Unfortunately, opioids are also addictive and most people taking them for longer periods need a risk evaluation and management strategy. If you’ve had a past history of substance abuse, they can also present a danger to your sobriety, even if you weren’t addicted to opioids.
Disclosing those risks with your doctor and discussing alternatives to opioids may be a good idea. If you’re taking an opioid agonist like Suboxone as part of a maintenance program, taking opioids for pain could even cause you to go into withdrawal.
At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that you may need opioids even temporarily. You can do so with the help of a higher risk evaluation strategy. You might also want to sit down with your doctor to discuss your full options and to find another strategy.
This article will discuss some of the natural ways you can alleviate pain and move past needing opioid painkillers. However, it is not medical advice. Instead, it should be a conversation starter between you and a medical professional.
Exercise and physical therapy are often first-line treatments for pain. While not everyone will be in condition to exercise, and it may not even be safe if you’re recovering from surgery, physical therapy is one of the most proven ways to recover your physical health.
Even if you’re struggling with chronic pain, exercise and physical therapy can greatly improve quality of life and perceived pain. Here, physical movement reduces inflammation, increases physical energy by improving oxygen levels in the blood, and boosts your mood. While these effects don’t last and you’ll have to keep exercising to maintain them, that will improve how you feel over time. For example, in one study, patients who exercised 4 days a week for a year were able to greatly reduce reported chronic pain.
Of course, if you’re suffering from pain or are recovering from surgery, it’s important not to just throw yourself into exercise. Talk to your doctor, get a recommendation to a physical therapist or occupational therapist, and make sure that the exercise you’re doing is safe for your body. Most importantly, exercise doesn’t have to be heavy. You could go swimming or take walks in the morning to get the same benefits.
Emotional processing and behavior heavily impact how we feel and experience pain. For that reason, therapy, especially behavioral therapy, can significantly improve how you deal with pain. Here, it’s important to note that therapy cannot reduce physical pain. However, it can reduce your perception of pain and how you respond to it.
For example, in one study, cognitive behavioral therapy was able to help patients recovering from surgery to experience less pain. Their self-report showed reductions in reported pain, reductions in using painkillers, and improved quality of life over the course of the treatment. In another, a 12-week course was enough to halve self-reported pain in some patients with chronic pain symptoms – although they needed follow-up and ongoing treatment to maintain the results.
The reasons this works are complex. For example, people experience pain as being more intense when their mood is low or down. Many people can also play up pain in their head and ruminate on it, resulting in paying more attention and therefore feeling it more. In other cases, simply improving mental health can reduce inflammation in the body, resulting in a reduced experience of pain. For that reason, cognitive behavioral therapy is now a first line treatment after surgery and is often used to supplement opioid painkillers even in patients who can have them.
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Stress management and stress reduction therapy might sound like they have nothing to do with pain management, but they very often do. Here, the more stressed you are, the more you experience inflammation, swelling, and chronic pain. That then goes on to affect your mood and how you experience other types of physical pain.
In addition, the act of physically destressing works in similar ways to exercise. You release endorphins, lifting the mood. Those endorphins also work as natural painkillers, temporarily alleviating symptoms of pain. Of course, no stress management technique will substitute for painkillers, but they can reduce your total pain over time.
Here, treatments like mindfulness or mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy are extremely common and popular. However, exercise, meditation, and even building stress-reducing habits like keeping a clean home can help.
It’s important to note that if you’re in pain, starting healthy habits can be impossible. It can be a self-defeating struggle to try to do something that causes more pain with the intent of reducing pain. It’s important to understand where your limits are and what you are actually capable of, to get help where you need it, and to break things down in a way that is doable for you.
Here, healthy habits include things like keeping your immediate space neat and tidy (clutter causes stress in most people), eating nutritious meals that generally follow daily guidelines and recommendations, bathing or showering regularly, getting enough exercise, and having a healthy social life.
Ensuring that you are taking care of yourself in other ways will help you to reduce pain without painkillers. However, again, this isn’t an immediate thing or something that will replace opioids if you’re going through surgery or are experiencing crippling pain. It will simply help to alleviate pain over time.
Natural pain relief is normally about pain reduction rather than getting rid of pain entirely. In addition, you shouldn’t start taking “natural remedies” like willow bark or similar. If those were safe to use in the doses that you need them in, people would use them. Instead, most natural remedies can cause significant stress on the liver. If you want to switch to a different painkiller, talk to your doctor about aspirin, ibuprofen, and other low-impact painkillers. Just keep in mind that they won’t be even close to as-effective as stronger painkillers.
In addition, none of the methods listed in this article will help immediately. They will reduce pain and your perception of pain over time, giving you tools to cope and to deal with pain in a healthy way. They won’t get rid of your pain.
If you’re currently on opioids and want to quit, make sure you talk to your doctor and get advice on stepping down off of your pills safely. If you’re facing surgery, sit down and have a discussion with your healthcare provider. Often, they’ll have options or alternatives for you. And, if you’re on suboxone or a similar medication, disclose it and ask for options. Your healthcare provider will have the best advice, even if it’s a short-term stint of opioids, followed by getting back on Suboxone and therapy. Eventually, pain pills may be necessary. Being able to dull pain, even for short periods can greatly improve your quality of life when going through recovery. At the same time, it may not be an option for you, which may mean looking for workarounds and alternatives with your doctor. Good luck.