Managing Chronic Pain Alternative Therapies and PainRelief Strategies

Man with knee pain

Pain serves an important purpose — it alerts us when we’re hurting. But when it persists, it can cause a vicious cycle of suffering, sleeplessness and depression.

Alternative therapies and pain-control strategies can help relieve chronic pain. But be wary of treatments with a financial motive and avoid dubious online sites asking for your credit card number.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is one of the most important parts of pain management treatment plans. It can help improve strength and mobility, while also reducing the amount of medication needed.

Chronic pain can be a debilitating condition that affects all areas of life. It can have an impact on sleep, mood and even social interactions. It also can cost $560 to $635 billion in lost work and medical costs each year.

While traditional pain medications like opioids are effective, they can have side effects and are not a good long-term solution. Alternative treatments can be an excellent addition to a pain management plan and may include massage, exercise, acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, and biofeedback. They are often called complementary therapies, rather than alternative medicine because they do not replace the use of medications.


Often referred to as complementary or integrative therapies, these noninvasive techniques may work well for some people with chronic pain. When used with a doctor’s approved plan, these methods can help manage symptoms and reduce the need for drugs to control them.

For example, massage therapy can relax tight muscles, which in turn reduces pain. Other holistic strategies such as guided imagery, hypnosis and meditation can also be effective for many patients.

Ultimately, it’s important to talk with your doctor before trying any alternative treatment. If your physician isn’t familiar with these methods, ask for a referral to one who is. Using these techniques without a physician’s supervision can pose health risks and is not recommended. Some holistic therapies can also interact negatively with certain medications.


As people age, the aches and pains that accompany chronic health conditions or diseases become more common. In fact, a recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that nearly two-thirds of those interviewed reported that they have tried alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture, yoga or herbal supplements to help ease their pain.

Acupuncture involves the placement of thin needles in specific points on the body. Often, this technique provides short-term relief for back and neck pain, arthritis and other conditions. It may also reduce stress and anxiety. Guided imagery, hypnosis and other mind-body techniques are known to ease pain and improve functioning as well.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Chronic pain can take a physical, financial and emotional toll on patients. It can also lead to mental health issues. Using mind-body techniques to address both the psychological and the physical aspects of pain is a common part of holistic medicine, often referred to as complementary and alternative treatment (CAM).

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps patients understand how their thoughts, feelings and behavior affects their pain. Therapists teach patients strategies to shift negative thinking and behaviors to decrease pain and other symptoms. Patients learn how to use coping skills that they can apply throughout their lives. For example, they learn to practice relaxation techniques and become aware of their pain in a different way, such as learning how the peak-end rule of memory influences pain perception.


Some body functions, like blood pressure or skin temperature, are controlled voluntarily by our nervous systems. Other functions, like muscle tension and heart rate, are involuntary.

With biofeedback therapy, you can learn to control these physiological functions. Electrodes or sensors attached to your finger or body send signals to a monitor, which displays a visual representation of these functions. The images, sound or flashes of light that you see can help you focus on lowering your heart rate and reducing the tension in your muscles.

While researchers aren’t sure why biofeedback works, they know that it promotes relaxation, which can alleviate a number of medical conditions linked to stress and anxiety. Talk to your doctor about getting a referral to a biofeedback therapist, and make sure your insurance covers sessions.

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