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Nine Non-Opiate Pain Relief Strategies that Don’t Kill You

A young man sets out on a hike on a mountain trail.
There are options other than living with pain or living with addiction.


“I can take painkillers or I can live in pain.”

This is likely a message you’ve heard before if you have a loved one who is addicted to prescription painkillers like Percocet or Vicodin.

The thing is, you have no idea whether that’s true or not. What’s more, your loved one may not even really know the truth anymore.

What is certain is that a person who is addicted to prescription painkillers is putting both their health and their life at risk. Other options—and there are many—must be explored. Here are some strategies for fighting pain that you can suggest to your friend or family member, including some very surprising research on over-the-counter non-narcotic pain relievers.

  • Exercise. When you’re in pain, this may be the last thing you want to do, but it will make you feel better. Start with a trainer or physical therapist if necessary and consider low-impact activities like walking, yoga or swimming. Not only will you feel looser and stronger, but the natural endorphins from exercise provide a boost.
  • Find a distraction. Preposterous, right? But research backs this one up. Several studies have shown that people who are distracted actually feel less pain. In very simplistic terms, it’s almost as if the brain is too busy to register pain. Try painting, reading a good book, playing video games or spending time with friends.
  • Get a massage. This can be especially helpful for back or neck pain. You may have to shop around a bit to find a good therapeutic massage. Look for people advertising “medical” or even “sports” massages. Ask around and don’t stay with a masseuse if you feel no better after a few sessions.
  • Track your pain. This can help both you and your doctor get a better handle on your situation. Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end of each day. Also note what activities you did and how you felt emotionally that day.
  • Try acupuncture. Skeptical? Check this out: In May of this year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed changing its guidelines to recommend that doctors inform themselves about acupuncture as an alterative to prescription opioids. In traditional terms, acupuncture is thought to correct imbalances in the flow of energy. Western medicine explains acupuncture as easing pain by affecting neurotransmitters, hormone levels or the immune system.
  • Reduce tension through guided imagery. You’re riding a horse through a prairie. Your body feels limber and free. You can feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your hair as the scent of sagebrush underfoot wafts up. The concept behind guided imagery is that it decreases tension (and thus pain) by leading you to a relaxed state. The mind-body connection is real.
  • Try biofeedback therapy. Similar to guided imagery, this technique harnesses the power of the mind to control the body. In a session, electrodes are attached to the skin and connected to a monitor. The goal is to learn to control involuntary body processes and improve health and reduce pain.
  • Consider whether you may have depression. It’s a known fact that depression can cause physical pain. Treating your depression will improve both mental and physical well-being.
  • Use non-narcotic pain medication. After being on prescription painkillers, over-the-counter pain meds may seem like a joke. They’re not, at least according to one organization. The National Safety Council is a non-profit founded in 1913. It reviewed several published studies and reached a stunning conclusion: “Essentially everyone believes that opioids are powerful pain relievers. However, recent studies have shown that taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen together is actually more effective in treating pain.”

Will all of these work for your loved one? Probably not. But there’s a good chance that, if he or she has an open mind, some of them will—without the risk of addiction, overdose or even death.

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