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Natural Pain Relief: 7 Ways to Manage Chronic Pain Without Drugs

For natural pain relief, consider these eight non-pharmacological ways to manage pain, from acupuncture to yoga.

Natural pain relief options

Living with chronic pain can make everyday tasks challenging. Pain relievers may help reduce or relieve pain, but they all come with advantages and disadvantages. Prescription pain relievers, such as opioids, can be extremely effective, but they come with the possible risk of addiction and overdose. Thankfully, there are several non-pharmacological treatments that can help with the management of pain. Read on down below to see the eight ways you can alleviate your pain, drug-free.

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Relax with acupuncture

This treatment is a natural go-to when you’re looking for natural pain relief. “The evidence is now quite good that acupuncture can be helpful in low back pain, headache, and arthritis. The benefits of acupuncture accumulate with ongoing treatment,” says Robert Bonakdar, MD, director of pain management at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California. He explains that acupuncture rewires the brain by tapping into cognitive areas that control the memory of and response to the hurt. (Read up on these secrets your pain doctor won’t tell you.)

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Stay moving with exercise

“Exercise is one of the most powerful tools we have for chronic pain,” says Dr. Bonakdar. Staying active “allows patients to increase their level of endorphins, dopamine, and tissue oxygen, all which can help reduce pain while improving mood and sleep,” he adds. Dr. Bonakdar points to a 2017 Cochrane review that found that aerobic exercise likely improves quality of life and may reduce pain intensity in patients with fibromyalgia. That said, some people say that exercise increases discomfort, so to sidestep that problem, it’s important to see a doctor or physical therapist who can work with you to start a program and ramp up safely.

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Consider vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a role when it comes to both chronic pain management and sleep. In a 2017 review in the Journal of Endocrinology, Brazilian researchers found the supplementation of vitamin D is associated with good sleep hygiene may have a therapeutic role, not only in sleep disorders but also in the prevention and treatment of chronic pain conditions. For one, lack of sleep can have downstream inflammatory effects that make you more sensitive to aches. Lack of vitamin D has also been linked to both pain conditions (like fibromyalgia) and poor sleep. How much vitamin D is right for you? Talk to your doctor before opting to take a supplement. Avoid doing these things that only make pain worse.

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Aim for a Mediterranean diet

“There’s evidence that blood sugar control can reduce the progression of pain in knee arthritis and that following the Mediterranean diet can reduce pain sensitivity,” says Dr. Bonakdar. A 2017 study published in the journal Pain by researchers from Ohio State University, he points out, suggests that eating foods with anti-inflammatory effects can decrease long-term discomfort, particularly in those who are obese. That’s why he tends to recommend his patients follow a low sugar, high omega-3, anti-inflammatory diet. (In fact, he plans to give his patients cooking demonstrations on how to use food to reduce pain.)

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Stretch yourself

Now that you’re moving more, add in yoga. Chronic pain can change your brain—you may lose gray matter, which affects your emotions and cognition, two factors that affect pain processing—but yoga can turn that around, suggests a 2015 study in the journal Pain. The researchers found lifestyle choices, such as the practice of meditation and yoga, can reduce pain perception and have the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain. Also, when looking at rodent models, the researchers found physical activity and a socially enriched environment led to a reduction in pain behavior and normalized brain function.

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Try cognitive behavioral therapy

In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the mind-body approach helps you identify and change self-defeating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that trigger pain. You may learn how to relax, identify, and change destructive thought patterns, as well as identify behaviors that increase and lessen pain. Simply put, it’s a problem-solving approach. CBT, along with other psychotherapeutic techniques, like biofeedback and mindfulness “can help reduce pain levels while also modulating brain activity similar to acupuncture,” says Dr. Bonakdar.

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Use more turmeric

There are so many ways turmeric can boost your health, including cognitive functioning. Add another one to that list: Chronic pain. Turmeric contains an anti-inflammatory compound called curcumin (which gives it its yellow hue), which “has historical and now solid clinical evidence for reducing inflammation and pain,” says Dr. Bonakdar. One 2016 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Medicinal Food concluded that turmeric extract was effective in treating arthritis, though more research is needed, the researchers point out. Still, it’s worth it to add the spice to your meals (throw fresh root into a smoothie, sprinkle it into water while rice cooks). Ask your doctor if supplements are right for you. Here are 16 more anti-inflammatory foods that you can eat to reduce pain.

Sources
  • Robert Bonakdar, MD, director of pain management at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, La Jolla, California
  • Cochrane Systematic Review – Intervention: “Aerobic exercise training for adults with fibromyalgia
  • Journal of Endocrinology: “The interfaces between vitamin D, sleep and pain”
  • Pain: “Dietary intake mediates the relationship of body fat to pain”
  • Pain: “Effect of environment on the long-term consequences of chronic pain”
  • Journal of Medicinal Food: “Efficacy of Turmeric Extracts and Curcumin for Alleviating the Symptoms of Joint Arthritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials”
Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on April 29, 2020

Jessica Migala
Jessica Migala is a freelance health and fitness writer with more than a decade experience reporting on wellness trends and research. She's contributed to Health, Men's Health, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Jessica lives with her husband and two young sons in the Chicago suburbs.