Learn how complementary therapies for pain like acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help people deal with chronic pain symptoms without opioids.
- Complementary therapies for pain can help reduce pain levels and use of prescription pain medications like opioids to treat chronic pain.
- Current chronic pain treatment often relies on opioid medications to help manage pain levels, but they have harsh side effects and can be addictive.
- Complementary and integrative therapies like acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and behavioral therapy are effective non-pharmacological ways to reduce pain and reduce or eliminate reliance on opioids.
- Many complementary therapies for pain also treat the anxiety, depression, and fatigue that are often associated with chronic pain.
- Bright Belly can help you find a complementary or integrative practitioner near you.
People with chronic pain may benefit from adding complementary and integrative (also called alternative) therapies like acupuncture or behavioral therapy to their treatment plan. Some complementary therapies can help manage your pain, reducing the need for prescription pain medications.
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is defined as pain that persists for three to six months or more (definitions vary). While acute pain is defined as short periods of intense pain following an injury or surgery, chronic pain lasts beyond predicted recovery time.
Chronic pain is also a symptom of many chronic illnesses such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, and arthritis.
Chronic pain can be constant or come and go with time. It affects your quality of life and may prevent you from participating in everyday activities or performing your job. It also affects your mental health and your relationships with others.
Symptoms of chronic pain
Chronic pain can cause physical and emotional symptoms, including:
- Limited mobility
- Muscle tension
- Increased fatigue
- Depression and anxiety
- Appetite changes
- Increased moodiness or behavioral changes
- Fear of re-injuring yourself or making the pain worse
- Insomnia or other problems sleeping
Conventional treatments for chronic pain
People with chronic pain may see a single pain management doctor or have a team of doctors helping them form a pain management plan. Treatments are outpatient-based and usually consist of medications.
Your doctor may refer you to a pain clinic, a specialized center for treating people with chronic pain. You may also need physical or occupational therapy if your pain is due to an injury or physical condition.
First-line treatments for pain
Doctors may first prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications or acetaminophen to reduce your pain, or they may recommend injections of corticosteroids.
Opioid medications for severe pain
Treatment for more severe pain often relies on opioid medications like OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone) to relieve symptoms.
Opioid side effects
Common side effects of opioid medications include:
- Drowsiness or brain fog
- Respiratory depression
Side effects like constipation get worse the longer you take opioid medications. Long-term use also increases your risk of becoming tolerant to your dose of medicine, meaning you’ll have to increase your dosage over time.
Opioids carry a high risk of dependency and addiction.
In addition to their high risk for addiction, opioid medications are often less effective at reducing symptoms for certain pain types, such as musculoskeletal pain.
What’s more, while these medications are effective at alleviating pain, they don’t treat other chronic pain symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle tension, and insomnia.
Complementary therapies for pain management
Approximately one-third of the world’s population is living with chronic pain. The side effects of opioids and their ease of abuse are causing doctors and people suffering from chronic pain to look for safe and effective non-pharmacological treatments.
Many complementary therapies are helping people reduce their pain levels and decrease or eliminate their reliance on opioids. Unlike most Western pain treatments, complementary and integrative therapies also help treat other symptoms associated with chronic pain, such as anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
Here are a few complementary and integrative therapies that are often used to treat pain.
With this traditional Chinese medicine treatment, thin needles are inserted into specific points on your body to help balance your energy (qi). Acupuncture stimulates your muscles, connective tissues, and nerves to help relieve tension and stress.
Scientific studies have shown that acupuncture is effective at treating physical and emotional pain. The treatment helps your body release natural pain-relieving and healing hormones like endorphins and corticosteroids.
What’s more, a 2020 randomized controlled trial found acupuncture for IBS to be more effective than two commonly prescribed Western medications for controlling the symptoms of IBS, including abdominal pain.
Mind-body techniques, as the name implies, emphasize the ability of the mind to heal the body. Mind-body therapies may involve breathing techniques, building body awareness, meditation practices, or guided movement.
Several mind-body therapies have research support for their ability to help manage chronic pain. These therapies include:
- Mindfulness meditation. One 2017 review of complementary and integrative therapies for chronic pain management showed that study participants with chronic back, neck, and rheumatoid arthritis pain showed small improvements in pain using mindfulness meditation.
An additional study found that mindfulness meditation can significantly improve chronic pain through multiple unique mechanisms within the brain.
- Tai chi. Studies have found tai chi to improve pain in participants with osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, and rheumatoid arthritis. Tai chi is also used to improve mood and overall physical functioning.
- Yoga. Research shows that yoga has the potential to decrease pain and increase mobility. For example, a 2019 randomized trial found yoga to be an effective treatment for moderate chronic low-back pain while also reducing reliance on pain medications. Additionally, the beneficial results were still evident one year after the trial’s end.
Chinese herbal medicine
Many herbs are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and have been used throughout the world for centuries. Some Chinese herbal compounds contain natural analgesics and are effective at reducing inflammatory and neuropathic pain.
Three Chinese herbs commonly used for pain management are Corydalis yanhusuo, Aconitum carmichaeli, and Ligusticum chuanxiong. Corydalis yanhusuo contains a compound called DHCB, which effectively reduces pain without increasing tolerance or producing negative side effects.
People with chronic pain may suffer from nausea, loss of appetite, and constipation. The proper diet and nutritional support may help reduce pain and alleviate other symptoms.
For example, recent research suggests that plant-based diets can help alleviate chronic musculoskeletal pain. Anti-inflammatory diets can reduce pain by lowering levels of inflammation in the body.
Adding soluble fiber to your diet can help alleviate gastrointestinal pain and constipation from opioid use. Many chronic pain sufferers find that a low-FODMAP diet can help to manage pain.
Dietary changes can be complicated, particularly when you’re trying to isolate foods that can cause hypersensitivity issues. Some, such as the low-FODMAP diet, can be tricky to manage in a healthy way.
A nutritionist or dietitian can help you transition to a therapeutic diet plan that works for you while maintaining a well-balanced, healthy diet.
Behavioral therapies, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular, can treat chronic pain, and current research shows solid evidence that it can effectively treat the pain of irritable bowel syndrome.
In addition to improving the quality of life in people with chronic pain, CBT has the added advantage of being an effective treatment for associated depression and anxiety.
How Bright Belly can help
People with chronic pain have non-pharmacological options to reduce their pain levels and improve their quality of life. Complementary therapies are non-addictive, have no long-term side effects, and can treat the body holistically, improving quality of life as well as pain.
Finding the right treatment or practitioner for your chronic pain may feel challenging. Trust Bright Belly for evidence-based information to help you decide which therapies are right for your condition.
Visit our provider director to find a holistic provider in your area.