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Managing Pain Without Medicine

There are many ways to manage pain that do not use medicine. Pain is best controlled when biological (body), psychological (mind), and social factors are considered. Pain management strategies that address all these factors can help you improve the body and mind’s response to pain.

Your care team may refer you to specialists in integrative medicine, child life, music therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychology, or nursing to learn pain management techniques. Chaplains or social workers can also help with spiritual or family support needs.

Woman massaging girl's head

Your care team may help you find ways to manage pain without using medicine. You may want to use more than one way to help manage your pain.

Some pain management techniques may be available at places other than your treatment center. But you should ask your care team before using other providers or trying methods on your own. There could be risks involved.

Strategies to manage pain without medicine

You may want to try one or more of the following ways to help manage your pain. Keep in mind that you may try many different approaches or a combination of approaches before you find something that works. 

Check with your care team before trying any of these techniques. 

Behavioral Strategies

Sleep

Poor sleep can increase your sensitivity to pain. Getting a good night’s rest can help you to better manage pain. Focus on building a consistent routine and sleep schedule. It can be frustrating to try to sleep when you are in pain. Talk with your care team for more ideas about how to improve sleep if you are having trouble sleeping. 

Exercise 

Exercise such as walking, biking, or yoga can help make muscles stronger, loosen stiff joints, and increase blood flow.

Pacing

It is important to have a good balance between rest and activity. A pacing plan helps you set activity levels based on goals you set, so that you can increase your activity levels slowly and safely. 

Even when you hurt, try to keep moving and use your muscles. But be careful that you do not do too much activity at one time. Doing too little or doing too much can cause pain flare-ups. 

You can work with a psychologist to learn how to make a pacing plan that works best for you.

Cold or heat therapy

Cold can help with pain from swelling, injury, or a procedure. Ice packs or crushed ice in a towel are common ways to put cold on a painful area.

Heat can help relieve pain because it increases blood flow. Taking a warm bath or putting on warm towels can help. Talk to your care team before using a heating pad.

Massage

Massage uses gentle pressure to increase the flow of body fluids, stretch muscles, and relax the body. Massage can help reduce stress and pain and improve sleep and overall well-being.

Acupuncture

The practice of acupuncture affects how nerves work in the body. A trained acupuncturist inserts thin needles into the skin or muscle at specific points that lie along nerves. Acupuncture treatments may help to relieve symptoms of pain.  

Journaling

Your pain management team may suggest that you write about techniques that you try in a pain journal to keep track of what works best for your pain. Write down your level of pain, date, time, how you managed it, and how you felt after. Record good and bad days. 

The act of writing can reduce stress, help you get out your emotions, and give you a sense of control. It can help your care team know more about your pain and how they can help treat it.

Mind/Body Strategies

Mindfulness 

Mindfulness techniques can help you to be more aware of how you experience pain. Pay attention to when the pain is worse and when it goes away. You may learn you are not in pain all day. Being aware of the pain can be the first step to managing it.

Distraction

You can use distraction techniques to help manage your pain. Focus on something else to take your mind off your discomfort. 

Some examples of distraction may be counting, listening to music, or playing with a game or a fidget during a short procedure such as a needle stick. 

Relaxation 

This approach may include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or soothing music or sounds. 

  • Deep breathing
    • To practice deep breathing, focus on taking slow, deep breaths from your belly. 
      • Imagine that there is a balloon in your belly that you are trying to fill up. 
      • When you breathe in, your “balloon” fills up, and when you breathe out, it empties. 
      • Breathe in for a slow count of 4. Breathe out for a slow count of 4. 
      • Practice taking 5 good deep breaths in a row.  
  • Mini-relaxation
    • Take small breaks during the day.
      • Set a timer on your phone. 
      • When your timer goes off, take a deep breath, and relax all your muscles (like a wet noodle). 
      • You can do this for about 10 seconds, many times per day.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
    This approach can help you learn to relax different muscles in your body. You learn to notice when your muscles are tense or tight and you know how to relax them. 
    • Get in a comfortable position. 
      • While taking deep breaths, squeeze then relax different muscles, starting with your toes and working up to your head. 
      • For example, squeeze your toes for a slow count of 5 and then let your toes relax, noticing how they feel when you relax. 
      • Do this 1–2 times before moving to the next muscle group (such as calf, thigh, etc.). 
      • Take your time; this should last at least 8 minutes.
  • Visualization or guided imagery
    This approach teaches you to think about or imagine pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, smells, or other feelings. Visualization is most helpful if you use all 5 senses.
    • Use your imagination to help your body and mind relax. 
      • Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so. Play calming music if that helps. 
      • Begin by taking slow, deep breaths. 
      • Let go of any tension in your body and imagine that you are in a special place. 
      • Your special place can be anywhere that is relaxing and comforting to you, like a warm beach by the ocean, or a lush, green forest. 
      • Use your senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch) to make the special place feel more real. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 

CBT strategies teach you how to pay attention to how your thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected. CBT can include different strategies, such as challenging negative thoughts, practicing relaxation, and learning to use helpful coping skills.

Biofeedback 

Biofeedback trains the mind to control the way the body responds to stressors such as pain.

In biofeedback, sensors are attached to the skin. These sensors measure your response to stress by looking at body functions such as heart rate. 

You can watch on a computer screen to see if a relaxation technique causes your heart rate to go down. You can see what works best for you and use this to control your response to pain. 

Medical hypnosis

Hypnosis helps you be more focused and free from distraction. It can make you more aware so you can control your thoughts, feelings, and behavior when you have pain.

Aromatherapy 

Aromatherapy uses essential oils to make scents that can help the body relax, release tension, and reduce pain.

Social Strategies

Modeling 

Modeling is when someone models or shows helpful ways to cope with pain. You may observe another patient or a caregiver. This works best when the “modeler” shows a pain response to a procedure and then shows or explains how they coped with it. The idea is that you will see the response and then be able to copy that way to cope with your pain. 

Enjoyable Activities

When you have longer pain episodes, distraction may mean doing a favorite activity like watching a movie, talking with family and friends, or playing video or board games.

Questions to ask the care team

  • How can I manage my pain without medicine?
  • What are the benefits of using these techniques to manage pain?
  • Where can I find licensed providers who offer these pain management techniques?
  • What risks do I need to be aware of? 
  • Will these techniques interfere with my other treatments and medicines?
  • When should I call you for help?

Key points about managing pain without medicine

  • There are many techniques for pain management that do not involve medicine. 
  • You may benefit from using behavioral, mind-body, and social strategies to manage pain.
  • Your care team may refer you to specialists to learn and practice pain management techniques. 
  • Talk to your care team about how to manage pain without medicine. 
  • Always check with your health care provider before trying any of these techniques. 


Reviewed: January 2024