woman in severe pain

Drug-Free Chronic Pain Management

Pain management is a top priority for those who live with chronic illness. Many disabilities and chronic conditions can lead to pain. That pain can range from frustrating and inconvenient to excruciating and debilitating. 

It is no wonder people make finding ways to manage that pain such a priority. 

Pain medication does not work for everyone. It is not available to everyone. There are many reasons why someone might be looking for something else – or something in addition – to manage their discomfort and other symptoms. 

Here, I’ve compiled a collection of some of my favorite alternative pain relief options. Browse, learn more, and talk to your doctor about which ones might be right for you:

Why is Drug-Free Pain Management Important? 

Let me begin by saying that I have no problem with people using opioid medications to relieve pain. Prescribers have become very cautious about using these medications due to concerns regarding addiction. These concerns are valid – but many believe that an overcorrection has been the result. 

As a result, many people who suffer from debilitating pain now have little to no access to effective pain management. While patient advocates are trying to remedy this situation and secure access to adequate pain management for chronic pain patients, there is a long way to go. 

For example, I live in the Kentucky/Ohio/West Virginia tri-state area, and the number of drug overdoses in my area is incredibly high. Because of that, pain medications, anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants, stimulants, and sedative medications are all heavily restricted. I had open-skull brain surgery in 2020 and was given nothing more than acetaminophen to manage my pain. 

Needless to say, that was a difficult experience. 

Many people are in similar situations. They live in areas or situations that prevent them from accessing the kind of pain medication they need. Or they may have religious or personal beliefs that prohibit or discourage the use of these medications. These are just a few reasons why people might need drug-free and non-opioid pain management solutions.

The suggestions in this article are designed to give you some ideas for alternatives to opioid pain medication and other drugs. What you choose to use and what your medical provider thinks is best for you will vary from person to person. Please remember to consult your doctor before starting any new pain relief routine, diet, medication, etc.

Non-Opioid Medications

While the point of this article is to focus on drug-free pain management options, it is important to remember that not all medications have the serious side effects that opioids do. There are options to help manage pain through both prescription and OTC medication. 

If you are dealing with chronic illness, your pain may be due to an underlying cause. If so, you may benefit from a prescription medication that addresses that cause or symptom. This might include a muscle relaxer, nerve medication, or other drugs. Obviously, this is something that you should discuss with your doctor. 

Likewise, there are plenty of over-the-counter options for pain management. You can choose between pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAID drugs, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and other medications to relieve mild to moderate pain. These drugs can also relieve inflammation and reduce fever. 

However, taking these drugs regularly can cause serious side effects, so always speak to a doctor before making them a regular part of your routine. 

Remember that any medication has potential side effects. Some are mild, but others can be serious or even life-threatening – especially when used with other medications. Never take a medication – prescription or OTC – without researching these side effects or speaking to a professional. 

Person taking medication for pain management.

Cannabis-Based Pain Management – CBD, THC, and More

I plan to share a more extensive piece about cannabis-based pain management products eventually. I realize even sharing that information is somewhat controversial. For that reason, I will only mention them briefly here. 

Depending on where you live, you may have access to THC pain relief products. In even more areas, you may have access to products containing non-psychoactive CBD. Other cannabis-based products are even more widely available and may provide relief from pain, stress, and other stressors. 

Research is still ongoing regarding the efficacy of these products for various applications, but there is strong evidence that they can be beneficial to some. 

Please consult with your physician or pharmacist, as well as your local laws regarding cannabis products before purchasing and using them. Please also always purchase from a reputable source, as drugs bought and sold on the street run a much higher risk of being compromised, inconsistent, and dangerous than those offered in medical settings. 

Topical Treatments

Depending on what type of pain you experience, you may be able to manage it topically. 

Muscle aches and stiffness are great candidates for topical pain relief. So are some types of joint pain. Skin conditions, surgical areas, and head and face pain are also good candidates for topical pain relief. As with most things, just be sure you are using something your doctor approves of before putting it directly on your skin. 

Topical pain relief can include a lot of different products, including both prescription and over-the-counter. Some examples of this include: 

  • Topical NSAID gel or cream
  • Stimulant creams, lotions, etc.
  • Heating balms or salves
  • Cooling gels or creams
  • Numbing products, such as those with benzocaine, lidocaine, etc. 

Remember to never apply topical products to open wounds or broken skin, rashes, or burns unless otherwise directed by your doctor. 

Heat vs. Cold for Pain Management

Most topical pain relief products on the market today use either heat or cold to relieve pain. While everyone probably has a preference, certain types of pain respond better to either heat or cold. 

Use heat when stiff, sore muscles are likely the cause of your pain. Examples include menstrual or reproductive pain, sore arms and legs after a long day of using those muscles, or a sore shoulder or back caused by a pulled muscle. Many medical conditions can also cause muscle pain; heat may be effective for managing this pain, as well. 

Products that use heat to relieve pain may include:

  • Heating pads
  • Microwavable towels or pillows
  • Wraps
  • Hand, foot, or other body warmers
  • Topical salves, ointments, or other products applied to the skin

Choose cold for pain relief if swelling, inflammation, or painful irritation is present. This is best for dealing with pain from an injury, soothing a wound, or caring for an area that has been burned. It can also be helpful to reduce soreness in joints. 

Some products that use cold to relieve pain include:

  • Ice and ice packs
  • Freezable pads, wraps, and flexible packs
  • Cooling topical products

There are instances in which heat and cold are both good options for pain relief, and your healthcare provider may recommend you rotate both. Be sure to use the two temperatures in intervals of no longer than 15-20 minutes at a time. Allow several hours before switching to the other temperature. This will increase efficiency without shocking your system and potentially making things worse. 

Ice and heat packs are great for pain management.

Physical Therapy

If you are recovering from surgery, you may already be going through physical therapy. Likewise, if you have suffered an injury or neurological event, PT may already be part of your routine. But did you know that physical or occupational therapy may be a good fit for many people with chronic pain or illness conditions? 

It’s true – I know from experience. 

Many people with conditions like multiple sclerosis can benefit from physical therapy. My mother-in-law has a condition called myotonic dystrophy, and she has seen major benefits from her weekly physical therapy sessions over the last few years. 

The key is to expect improvement, rather than total pain relief. The exercises offered by your therapist are designed to help you improve your strength and flexibility. They can help make your body stronger and better able to cope with everyday activity. This can – potentially – help to better manage pain and other symptoms. 

Most physical therapy centers require a prescription or referral to use the facility and services. If you believe you would benefit from PT sessions, speak to your healthcare provider about what is available in your area. 

Yoga and Stretching

Most of us who suffer from chronic illness and pain have had yoga recommended to us. While any medical professional will tell you that yoga and stretching will not cure everything, they do have their benefits. Gentle exercise of any kind does. 

The stretching and gentle strengthening exercises of yoga can help relieve tension and stiffness of the muscles. It can also improve flexibility, strengthen muscles, and help to reduce pain over time. For many people with chronic illness or disabilities, yoga is also gentle enough to participate in regularly – especially with modifications in place. 

Be sure to ask your healthcare team if yoga or similar exercises are safe for you to try!

Speak to a Nutritionist About Pain Management Through Diet

Search for pain management advice online, and you will undoubtedly see people espousing their preferred diet as the way to go. It is true that some people can find pain relief or reduction through diet. This is especially true for people who are unknowingly eating food that they have sensitivities to.

However, the majority of people do not have sensitivities to things like sugar, gluten, animal products, and other popular elimination diet categories. Worse, people who eliminate these items from their diet without sensible substitutions often end up eating diets that are even less healthy and lack key nutrients. 

Moderation is important when it comes to diet. If you are concerned that you may have food sensitivities, consult with a nutritionist. They can help you determine what might be missing from your diet and what could stand to go. Less pain could be just a change of diet away!

Healthy diet meal for pain management.


Just like dietary changes, supplements are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can offer some people better health and fewer deficiencies in their diet. On the other hand, many people do not understand how to take them safely. 

For those who have vitamin or mineral deficiencies, adding supplements can be beneficial. Other supplements may help relieve pain and stiffness. CoQ10 is one example of this. However, research to determine the efficacy of even these well-received supplements is still in progress. 

Your best bet is always to speak to a doctor or other healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement. The provider may recommend bloodwork or other tests to determine what your needs are and whether adding supplements to your diet can help with pain or its root causes. 

Acupuncture and Acupressure

There are plenty of options for holistic and complementary pain management. One that has grown dramatically in popularity in the last decade is the combination of acupressure and acupuncture. You may choose to use either or both to meet your individual treatment needs. 

Acupuncture involves the gentle and practiced insertion of tiny needles into specific points on the body. In some forms of practice, these needles are inserted only into points in the hands or feet. Other practitioners may insert needles into points all over the body. Still others may move or manipulate these needles, add electrical stimulation, or herbal mixtures to them to increase stimulation.

On the other hand, acupressure uses a similar system that does not involve puncturing the skin. The points of pressure are often similar to those used with acupuncture, and the results are reportedly similar as well. 

These results are supposed to include improved circulation, a release of tension, and the reduction of inflammation and pain. However, while patients often report great satisfaction with their experiences, these results are still being researched by medical professionals. 

Needles – even small ones – can be dangerous. They can introduce bacteria and other substances into the body. Always be certain to verify the expertise and experience of any holistic medical practitioner that you trust to treat your body. 

Massage Therapy

Massage is a great complementary therapy for pain management. While most people do not find complete relief from massage, many do find that it is a valuable addition to their current routine. 

Massage helps with pain in several ways. First, getting a massage can help to reduce inflammation and soothe sore, tired muscles to release tension and reduce pain immediately. This effect is generally short-lived. 

However, getting regular massages can cause that temporary impact to appreciate over time. Within a few weeks, many people report less inflammation and soreness from day to day with routine massage. When combined with other treatment approaches, this increasing impact over time can lead to more manageable levels of pain. 

Person receiving massage for chronic pain.

Electric Stimulation Therapy

While electric stimulation therapy might sound intimidating, it is much more common than you might think. Also called e-stim, this was once an in-office treatment used by chiropractors, massage therapists, and other practitioners. However, there are now numerous models of electric stimulation devices available in pharmacies and stores to help people manage pain at home and on the go. 

These devices can be affixed to the skin directly or worn tucked under clothes. They conduct gentle electrical pulses into the muscles to relieve pain. This can be very effective for back or shoulder pain, menstrual or reproductive pain, and more. It is generally painless and can help make debilitating muscle pain much more manageable. 

Your medical provider can also offer you more flexible, fully-featured models of e-stim devices either in-office or via prescription. These may require some instruction, though, so be sure to consult with your provider before using one. 


Meditation is sometimes referred to as brain training. This is an accurate description since the goal of meditation is more than just sitting in silence. It is working through your thoughts, feelings, and even physical experiences. 

While meditation styles vary, it is generally a well-tolerated pain management approach for most. It can also be done almost anywhere, any time, and by any number of people. By focusing attention on specific things – such as your breathing – you can shift focus away from things like pain, stress, and more. 

Meditation is a great, safe addition to – not alternative to – your current pain management approach.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Chronic pain can have a serious impact on your mental health. As such, many professionals recommend adding mental health support – such as therapy – to your pain management routine. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one form of behavioral therapy that can be beneficial to those with chronic pain. The model evaluates the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It also helps the recipient of therapy to work toward better behaviors in response to negative thoughts and feelings – both of which are common and understandable for sufferers of chronic and severe pain. 

The goal of therapy as a pain management tool is not to reduce the pain itself, but to improve our mental and emotional response to it. When paired with other approaches, this can be an effective way to improve outcomes for patients with a variety of chronic conditions. My husband is a therapist who utilizes CBT and he has helped me reframe my thinking in a beneficial way numerous times.

Like any other aspect of health care and pain management, these issues should be addressed by a professional. If you or your loved one are dealing with negative emotions and thought patterns as a result of your chronic pain, therapy may be one way to combat this and live a healthier, happier life.

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