Pain Management Without the Pills

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America has long viewed yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, massage, and relaxation techniques as alternative or complementary ways to manage chronic pain. But because there hadn’t been a fat stack of scientific research to back their effectiveness, many Western doctors doubted these therapies were legit. Pain pills, meanwhile, got the green light.

The tide is shifting, as more evidence is showing that these complementary pain-relieving strategies really do work. The latest layer of proof comes from a large research review conducted by the National Institutes of Health. The investigators looked at over 105 high-quality, randomized, controlled trials, all conducted in the U.S., and found sufficient evidence to show that acupuncture and yoga are effective against chronic back pain. They determined acupuncture and tai chi relieve pain from knee osteoarthritis. For neck pain, massage works particularly well, and for severe headaches and migraines, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction are helpful.

According to Dr. Josie Znidarsic, an osteopathic physician at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, acupuncture is an excellent modality for all types of pain. Yoga, tai chi, and meditation can also help with many different aches. “These therapies are effective because they address the mind-body connection, which is often overlooked when treating pain,” Znidarsic says. “The focus tends to be only on healing the physical body, but the emotional component may be the biggest factor in the healing process.”

That’s because pain is perceived and interpreted in the brain, she says. Additionally, poor mental health can make pain worse. “Emotional issues and stress can lead to increased inflammation in the body, which prevents proper healing from occurring,” Znidarsic says.

Pharmaceutical painkillers, on the other hand, do nothing to address the brain’s role in pain. Their primary purpose is to mask symptoms, not provide lasting relief. Plus, many drugs are riddled with side effects — and that's not just the Percocet and hydrocodone. “There are definitely risks with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen,” Znidarsic says. “With chronic use, there can be gastrointestinal, cardiac, or liver issues.”

On the other hand, complementary mind-body practices have no real side effects. “Plus, they’ll provide benefits far beyond what you’re trying to treat,” says Znidarsic. These perks include reducing stress, improving sleep, and taking your pain for what it is versus obsessing over it. “These therapies will produce lasting skills that promote a healthier life all around,” Znidarsic adds.