8 natural ways to ease chronic pain

These strategies can help provide quick relief — without a prescription

Relief for tough, ongoing pain doesn’t always come in a bottle of pills. In fact, drug-free therapies and lifestyle changes frequently lessen the need for medications, according to the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA).

That’s great news for anyone who’s concerned about the side effects and addictive potential of powerful painkillers, or who wants to avoid surgery for chronic muscle or joint pain.

“Often, I see patients who have not fully explored all the treatment options,” says Kaliq Chang, M.D., a spine and neck pain management specialist at the Atlantic Spine Center in New Jersey and New York.

Dr. Chang encourages anyone who’s navigating day-to-day life with a nagging or downright agonizing pain to advocate for themselves and actively seek out other treatments that may help.

That advice likely applies to you — an estimated 65% of Americans over the age of 65 have some type of pain, the ACPA reports. Up to 30% have chronic pain (defined as lasting longer than 12 weeks). And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 15% of older adults use a prescription pain-relief drug.

Chronic pain has many causes, and the methods for managing it are just as diverse. You can pave your own path to relief by exploring the various options and staying open to new approaches. 

As always, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before starting a new treatment or exercise program. Be open about any pain you’re experiencing so your doctor can determine the right course of action.

These eight science-backed strategies may deliver the comfort you’re looking for.

Pain relief strategy #1: Rethink your plate

What you eat can play a role in your pain. “The best diet for anybody, including those in chronic pain, is one rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and a small to moderate amount of meat,” says Dr. Chang.

The Journal of Musculoskeletal Pain reports that leafy vegetables and fresh fruits can help fight swelling and ease muscle and joint pain. That’s because of antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation in your body, including your joints. These antioxidants are in foods such as broccoli, spinach and berries, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Arthritis Foundation.

By contrast, foods high in salt, sugar and fat have the potential to ramp up swelling and worsen symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That’s all the more reason to recommit to daily vegetables and forgo sugary drinks and salty treats.

Pain relief strategy #2: Start moving — gently

We know what you’re thinking — when you’re in pain, exercise is one of the last things on your mind. But try to muster the energy to lace up your sneakers or roll out the yoga mat. Moving more has been shown to be effective in helping to ease those aches.

“For most joint pain, I recommend that my patients get into a pool,” says Kavita Sharma, M.D., a pain management physician with Manhattan Pain & Sports Associates. “Swimming keeps the joints moving, but with low impact, so there’s less pain and they’re still strengthening the joints.” Be sure to check local guidelines about when it’s safe to use a public pool.

Tai chi is another gentle yet effective option. “Each movement leads into another, so your body is in constant motion, which keeps your joints lubricated,” says Dr. Sharma.

If low-back or neck pain is your primary complaint, consider learning a few yoga poses. The American College of Physicians lists yoga as a “first-line treatment” of chronic low-back pain. And the combination of postures, breathing exercises and meditation that are the primary features of a yoga session can significantly reduce arthritic and low-back pain, the NIH notes.

One more upside to increasing your physical activity — no matter the style — is that it can help you lose weight. And — you guessed it — shedding pounds is another way to help reduce back, knee, and other joint and muscle pain, says Dr. Sharma.

Pain relief strategy #3: Try physical therapy

It’s a myth that ongoing body aches are a normal part of aging. If you have a bum knee or sore shoulder that you’ve been chalking up to every turn of the calendar, you might be interested to know that a physical therapist can help you get to the root cause of your aches and pains.

These days, many physical therapists are able to see patients via telehealth because of changes made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Your health care provider may be able to recommend one who is currently conducting video appointments. 

Expect the physical therapist to take a close look at your symptoms, health history and lifestyle as part of his or her detective work. You’ll be prescribed a treatment plan that may include strength and conditioning exercises, as well as stretching and hands-on therapy (like massage) of the joints and soft tissue.

Pain relief strategy #4: Try acupuncture

Acupuncture, an ancient practice that uses very thin needles to stimulate specific points on the body, has been racking up a strong body of modern research supporting its pain-relieving benefits.

Acupuncture has also been shown to reduce shoulder and neck pain, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). It’s even helpful for headache pain and arthritis.

The needles are sterilized and single-use. Plus, most people report feeling only a slight prick when the needle is inserted. Like other alternative therapies, acupuncture doesn’t work for everyone, and it may take a few sessions to start feeling the full benefits.

Pain relief strategy #5: Consider a massage

It’s time to rethink the idea of a massage as an occasional luxury treat. Research suggests that massage therapy can soothe neck, shoulder and low-back pain, as well as curb anxiety and boost your mood.

Canadian researchers at McMaster University found that even a 10-minute massage triggers the release of inflammation-reducing signals to muscle cells.

Another study, this one published in the Scientific World Journal, showed that deep tissue massage was as effective as over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in reducing chronic low-back pain.

Pain relief strategy #6: See a chiropractor

Though chiropractors are best known for spinal manipulation and treating back pain, they also have a lot to offer people dealing with neck pain, frequent headaches and more.

Chiropractors use more than their hands to fix spinal misalignments. They may employ ultrasound, electromagnetic therapy, heat or ice therapy or other devices to help ease inflammation in the affected area.

According to recent NCCIH figures, the popularity of chiropractic care is rising slowly, with slightly more than 10% of adults seeing a chiropractor.

Pain relief strategy #7: Explore meditation

The number of Americans who meditate has risen more than threefold since 2012, according to the NCCIH. If you have chronic pain, you may want to consider joining the crowd.

Specifically, mindfulness-based meditation has been tied to improved pain management. This meditation style uses breathing techniques and imagery to focus on and embrace living in the moment.

Curious to try mindfulness and meditation? Here’s where to begin.

  • Find a quiet spot away from distractions.
  • Make yourself comfortable. Sit on the floor or a chair, keeping your back straight.
  • Choose a focus point. You may look at an object or repeat a word. You may choose to concentrate on something inside, such as a peaceful scene in your mind. Maybe it’s a quiet beach, a mountain or a field of flowers.
  • Cut yourself some slack. You may get distracted by other thoughts. It happens. Don’t worry that you’re not doing the meditation “right.” Refocus and continue.

Pain relief strategy #8: Take a stretch break

Many root causes of chronic pain can be traced back to past injuries, poor posture or misalignment from long stretches of sitting. Stretching exercises can help reverse these effects.

Gently lengthening the soft tissues around your joints can help reduce the chance of pain; well-stretched muscles are less prone to injury.

Try to stretch all of your major muscle groups a few times a week — from your neck on down to your calves and ankles. Yoga and tai chi both include stretching elements, but you can also ask your doctor or a physical therapist to recommend a few good stretches for your particular point of pain.

When you find a few good stretches that work for you, remember to start slowly and gently. And don’t bounce — that can hurt the muscle tissue.

When alternative therapies aren’t enough

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain management. If you’ve tried one or more alternative therapies and still aren’t finding relief, ask your doctor about some second-line treatment options.

One possibility is nerve-block therapies. These are local anesthetics, proteins, or steroids that are injected into soft tissue or joints. They block nerves from sending pain signals to the brain.

Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that while injections can work well, the effects aren’t permanent. This treatment is often used to help with severe pain during early recovery until other treatment options take effect.

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