What is pain?
Pain is a signal in your nervous system that something may be wrong. It is an unpleasant feeling, such as a prick, tingle, sting, burn, or ache. Pain may be sharp or dull. It may come and go, or it may be constant. You may feel pain in one area of your body, such as your back, abdomen, chest, pelvis, or you may feel pain all over.
There are two types of pain:
- Acute pain usually comes on suddenly, because of a disease, injury, or inflammation. It can often be diagnosed and treated. It usually goes away, though sometimes it can turn into chronic pain.
- Chronic pain lasts for a long time, and can cause severe problems
What are pain relievers?
Pain relievers are medicines that reduce or relieve pain. There are many different pain medicines, and each one has advantages and risks. Some are over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Others are stronger medicines, which are available by prescription. The most powerful prescription pain relievers are opioids. They are very effective, but people who take them are at risk of addiction and overdose.
Because of the side effects and risks of pain relievers, you may want to try non-drug treatments first. And if you do need to take medicines, also doing some non-drug treatments may allow you to take a lower dose.
What are some non-drug treatments for pain?
There are many non-drug treatments that can help with pain. It is important to check with your health care provider before trying any of them:
- Acupuncture involves stimulating acupuncture points. These are specific points on your body. There are different acupuncture methods. The most common one involves inserting thin needles through the skin. Others include using pressure, electrical stimulation, and heat. Acupuncture is based on the belief that qi (vital energy) flows through the body along paths, called meridians. Practitioners believe that stimulating the acupuncture points can rebalance the qi. Research suggests that acupuncture can help manage certain pain conditions.
- Biofeedback techniques use electronic devices to measure body functions such as breathing and heart rate. This teaches you to be more aware of your body functions so you can learn to control them. For example, a biofeedback device may show you measurements of your muscle tension. By watching how these measurements change, you can become more aware of when your muscles are tense and learn to relax them. Biofeedback may help to control pain, including chronic headaches and back pain.
- Electrical stimulation involves using a device to send a gentle electric current to your nerves or muscles. This can help treat pain by interrupting or blocking the pain signals. Types include
- Transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TENS)
- Implanted electric nerve stimulation
- Deep brain or spinal cord stimulation
- Massage therapy is a treatment in which the soft tissues of the body are kneaded, rubbed, tapped, and stroked. Among other benefits, it may help people relax, and relieve stress and pain.
- Meditation is a mind-body practice in which you focus your attention on something, such as an object, word, phrase, or breathing. This helps you to minimize distracting or stressful thoughts or feelings.
- Physical therapy uses techniques such as heat, cold, exercise, massage, and manipulation. It can help to control pain, as well as condition muscles and restore strength.
- Psychotherapy (talk therapy) uses methods such as discussion, listening, and counseling to treat mental and behavioral disorders. It can also help people who have pain, especially chronic pain, by
- Teaching them coping skills, to be able to better deal with the stress that pain can cause
- Addressing negative thoughts and emotions that can make pain worse
- Providing them with support
- Relaxation therapy can help reduce muscle tension and stress, lower blood pressure, and control pain. It may involve tensing and relaxing muscles throughout the body. It may be used with guided imagery (focusing the mind on positive images) and meditation.
- Surgery can sometimes be necessary to treat severe pain, especially when it is caused by back problems or serious musculoskeletal injuries. There are always risks to getting surgery, and it does not always work to treat pain. So it is important to go through all of the risks and benefits with your health care provider.
- Consumer Information on Pain (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Managing Chronic Pain: How Psychologists Can Help with Pain Management (American Psychological Association)
- Pain Mangement: Non-Opioid Treatment (American Society of Anesthesiologists)
- Know Your Options (to Manage Your Pain Without Opioids) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Acupuncture: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Biofeedback (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Chiropractic: In Depth (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Chiropractic: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Chronic Pain: In Depth (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Magnets for Pain (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Massage Therapy: What You Need to Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Meditation (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (American Osteopathic Association)
- Pain: Considering Complementary Approaches (eBook) (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Rehabilitation: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Stress Management: Massage (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Tai Chi and Qi Gong: In Depth (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Yoga: What You Need to Know (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
Statistics and Research
- 6 Things You Should Know: The Science of Chronic Pain and Complementary Health Practices (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
- Managing Pain: Moving Beyond Opioids (National Institutes of Health) Also in Spanish
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Complementary and Integrative Therapies for Pain (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Article: Comparison of opioid local anesthetic combination regimens using the number of...
- Article: Efficacy and safety of thunder-fire moxibustion for patients with knee osteoarthritis:...
- Article: Systematic review shows no strong evidence regarding the use of elastic...
- Non-Drug Pain Management -- see more articles
- Terms Related to Complementary and Integrative Health (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
Find an Expert
- Find a Massage Therapist (American Massage Therapy Association)
- Find a NCCAOM Certified Practitioner (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine)
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health