Whilst pain and discomfort is inevitable at some stage of one’s life, it’s an unpleasant and undesirable experience that disrupts day-to-day life. For fortunate individuals, pain is experienced fleetingly, perhaps after a minor injury. Longer term chronic pain such as neck or back pain, or frequently recurring intense pain such as migraines, can significantly reduce quality of life, and can lead to poorer mental health and conditions such as depression. Chronic pain is defined as a pain that lasts longer than 3 months despite using medication or treatment, and affects over 43% of the population.
For physical pain, specific medication is typically the initial treatment option recommended due to its often immediate relieving effects and convenience. There are, however, numerous benefits to exploring complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs); these are treatments that are rarely recommended as the single most effective method of pain relief, but can help to alleviate discomfort and act to support a medicinal treatment approach.
We’ve put together a varied list of the different approaches to pain management, many of which can be used in tandem to help alleviate both mental and physical discomfort.
This ancient Chinese practice is a widely popular therapeutic or preventative practice whereby fine needles are inserted into the skin at key points. Traditional practitioners believe that acupuncture enables the life force ‘Qi’ to flow freely through the body, dispelling illness. Despite these more mystical origins, acupuncture has very real positive effects, and is often used in many NHS GP practices as a complementary medicine. By stimulating sensory nerves at specific points under the skin, acupuncture prompts the body to produce more naturally-pain-relieving endorphins. The treatment is most commonly used to relieve chronic tension-type headaches and migraines, as well as other musculoskeletal conditions such as joint or neck pain.
One meta-analysis of patient data found acupuncture to be effective for the treatment of chronic pain, with significant differences in true and sham acupuncture proving there’s more to the treatment than simply placebo; with this said, several lines of argument suggest both genuine or sham acupuncture is associated with more potent placebo or contextual effects than other interventions .
In addition to being a popular relaxation technique, massaging has a well-documented application for pain relief. Massage has been shown to be effective at relieving chronic back pain, acutely damaged skeletal muscles, and even chronic tension headaches. In addition, massage therapy can be used as a complementary treatment for depression, stress, anxiety and poor quality sleep. This holistic treatment is great for improving circulation, posture and flexibility, and reducing inflammation and stiffness.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used as a psychological treatment for chronic pain, aiming to reduce the negative impact chronic pain has on a person’s mental health. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest that this method is effective at reducing pain in the long term, one study found CBT to be effective at reducing pain immediately after treatment; CBT is particularly good at reducing feelings of anxiety or depression that has come as a result of chronic pain.
This practice is a method of relaxing, strengthening and keeping the body flexible through performing specific poses that stretch different areas of the body. There have been mixed conclusions from studies investigating the effectiveness of yoga as a physical pain relief method, but it does help individuals to cope with their pain, and many report feeling more in control of how their pain affects their daily life. One study of 313 people with chronic lower back pain found that a weekly yoga class increased their mobility more than standard medical care.
Chronic stress and chronic pain can have significant physiological overlaps. Stress can lead to reduced quality of sleep, increased cortisol production that can cause inflammation and pain over time, and muscle tensions and spasms. These symptoms are not conducive to the recovery of a pre-existing pain, so taking time to reduce stress is a vital component of pain management.
Performing deep breathing exercises, perhaps coupled with some form of meditation, can help to ease muscle tension, spasms and aches. The body releases endorphins following a session of deep breathing, acting as your body’s natural painkiller. Try slow and deep breathing such as box breathing to relieve stress, and also feel more alert and concentrated.
Doing some gentle exercise, such as walking, swimming or gardening, has been shown to reduce pain sensations by directly blocking some pain signals going to the brain. You can try coupling exercise with nature, such as going for a walk in the woods, to benefit from calming effects of the outside. Read more about this in our article on the benefits of green exercise.
OTC medication offers affordable and effective methods of mild to moderate pain relief. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, reduce inflammation and pain. For headaches and migraines, Nurofen Migraine tablets and Solpadeine tablets headaches tablets are popular options, and Voltarol gel and Flexiseq gel are great for relieving localised muscle or joint pain.
Magnesium supplementation appears to be a promising alternative treatment for migraines, significantly reducing attack frequency in 81 migraine sufferers, and also effectively reducing migraine duration in a study of women with menstrual migraine . Numerous studies have found migraine sufferers to have low magnesium levels in the brain, with migraine supplements allowing greater blood flow to several regions of the brain, helping to relieve migraine headaches.
Often used to effectively reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, fish oil and other omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have anti-inflammatory and vasodilatory effects and so may help relieve migraines and joint pain. Taking Omega-3 or Cod Liver Oil supplements is an inexpensive method of ensuring you’re frequently getting a beneficial dose of fatty acids, and is a possible complementary treatment for pain, although more research is needed for this to be conclusive.
There’s a growing interest amongst the scientific community to explore the medical applications of Cannabidiol (CBD), and research is discovering the advantages to be wide reaching. CBD has been found to prevent anandamide metabolism, an endocannabinoid associated with pain regulation, resulting in reduced feelings of pain . The additional anti-inflammatory properties of CBD may also contribute to pain relief, and could be great for those looking to move away from conventional medication, the overuse of which might itself be contributing to migraines or pain. CBD is available for consumption via oral drops, skin cream, body balm and even CBD gummies.
For the treatment of migraines, the family of medicines known as triptans act as serotonin agonists, and are very effective at relieving the pain from migraine headaches, as well as reducing other symptoms such as nausea or vomiting. Sumatriptan, a popular triptan for treating migraines, works by narrowing the blood vessels in the brain to reduce migraine headaches, and has the benefit of working well on either a full or empty stomach. The alternative Rizatriptan works better on an empty stomach, but has the advantage of quicker activation than Sumatriptan. Zolmitriptan is recommended for menstrual migraines in particular, becoming effective within 45 minutes of taking the medication, and relieving painful symptoms for approximately 2 hours.
For treating flu, Tamiflu is a popular antiviral medication that helps the body’s immune system fight off the infection, speeding up recovery from the uncomfortable and sometimes painful symptoms.