Often, our body’s way of telling us something is wrong is through pain — and this is a major reason for visiting the doctor. The problem is not always easily solved, however, and many people suffer from chronic pain.
Between 8% and 12% of chronic pain patients who are prescribed opioids will develop dependency on painkillers. Opioid addiction has become an epidemic in the United States. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died from opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This is, on average, 128 deaths a day.
About 17,000 of these annual deaths involved opioids prescribed for treatment of moderate-to-severe pain (the rest are ascribed primarily to illegal street drugs).
Research has shown that instead of turning to powerful drugs, more than 50% of people with chronic musculoskeletal pain have sought out alternative treatments, with chiropractic care, massage, and acupuncture the most commonly used, according to Dr. Jonathan Koning, a board-certified pain management specialist and anesthesiologist.
“[For] most chronic pain conditions, like low back pain, neck pain, and fibromyalgia, complementary medical interventions have shown to improve pain levels, lessen depression, and improve functionality in some people.”
To identify some of the best available alternative pain treatment, 24/7 Wall St. consulted anesthesiologists and reviewed research in publications such as The Journal of the American Medical Association and Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering.
There’s a growing consensus nowadays that lifestyle changes need to be implemented in all chronic pain conditions, Koning noted. “And there’s a growing emphasis on these changes as opposed to hastily starting patients on medications.” The American College of Physicians, for example, updated its low back pain guidelines in 2017, suggesting doctors prescribe alternative therapies that don’t involve pills before opioids.
Over-the-counter medications, which are less potent and thus less addictive, may do the trick, too. One study of more than 400 emergency room patients with acute pain (which usually comes on suddenly, is caused by a specific incident, and doesn’t last long) from bone fractures, dislocated shoulders, and other injuries or conditions showed that OTC medicine was just as effective as opioids after two hours.
Some studies have shown that non-pharmaceutical interventions such as exercise, stress reduction and better diet can also be effective for some chronic pain patients.