Do Drug-Free Pain Treatments Actually Work?

It seems that every week there’s a new report highlighting America’s overwhelming dependency on prescription painkillers. Whether discussing the alarming opioid overdose rates, the disturbing trend of moving from prescription drugs to heroin or the massive number of prescriptions written by doctors, it’s very clear that an opioid abuse and addiction epidemic is gripping the United States.

With over 100 million Americans reportedly suffering from chronic pain every year,[1] and doctors having limited time to see each patient, prescriptions are often the most convenient remedies. However, the fact that they are convenient and often fast-acting does not necessarily make them the best choice for long-term pain relief. Prescription opioids are incredibly effective at treating the acute pain that follows major surgeries, car accidents, end-stage cancer and other conditions, but they can be problematic for chronic pain due to the threat of tolerance, addiction and overdose.

Is there another way? Several drug-free pain management options are available for people struggling with long-term chronic pain. Why then do doctors continue to prescribe prescription opioids as long-term treatments rather than suggesting some drug-free options? We live in a society that demands quick results; frequently, the time commitment required for drug-free options to become effective is too much for patients who want immediate and constant relief. This is not to say, however, that drug-free pain treatments can’t be just as effective as prescription drugs. In fact, when used correctly and consistently, these alternative treatments can address a patient’s pain more effectively that prescription drugs.

Why Prescription Opioids Are Potentially Dangerous

Opioids are among the world’s oldest drugs, with usage dating back many millennia to ancient Mesopotamia.[2] Morphine, the most active substance found in the poppy plant (where all opioids are derived from), is named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.[3] It has been known for several centuries that opium, morphine and other opiates and opioids are very effective at treating pain but also highly addictive.

In addition to the threats of addiction and overdose, opioid use can lead to:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Constipation

For people struggling with severe pain following an operation or a serious injury, opioid use may not only be helpful, but it might also be necessary. Some types of pain are unbearable, and it would be cruel to force people in agonizing pain to power through it without some pharmaceutical assistance. However, when pain persists for months at a time, it is then classified as chronic pain. Continuing to treat chronic pain with prescription opioids may lead to tolerance and then addiction.

A person develops tolerance when the same dosage of his or her medication no longer has the usual level of impact. This causes users to consume more of the prescription drug to find relief from pain. As this cycle continues, the user becomes more and more dependent on the drug, potentially leading to an eventual overdose or a switch to heroin.

In 2014, a record number of Americans died from drug overdoses, with more than 60 percent of them involving opioids. From 2000 to 2014, nearly 500,000 people died from drug overdoses and 78 U.S. citizens died every day from an opioid overdose.[4] What’s worse is that nearly 80 percent of heroin addicts started off abusing prescription opioids, according to aggregated national heroin usage data.[5]

Heroin and Prescription Opioid Abuse in America:

  • 75 percent of high school heroin users started with prescription opioid abuse[6]
  • From 1999 to 2013, there was a 303 percent increase in deaths involving prescription opioids[7]
  • In 1991, doctors wrote 76 million prescriptions for opioids. By 2013, that number had climbed to 207 million[8]

Some research has drawn a connection between substance use disorders and reports of chronic pain. A 2004 study found that 37 percent of patients in methadone maintenance treatment programs and 24 percent of patients admitted for addiction treatment also suffered from severe chronic pain. The same study showed that 80 percent of the methadone management patients and 78 percent of the addiction recovery patients reported some level of pain and extended duration. Quite obviously, this population of chronic pain patients may be prone to abusing prescription opioids, making it a risky treatment strategy.[9]

How Drug-Free Options Can Help

Pain relief is not only found in a bottle. There are multiple drug-free options that provide much safer relief to ongoing pain. Though there are times in which the use of prescription opioids may be necessary, patients and physicians should be actively seeking to use drug-free options over the long haul to avoid any of the health complications associated with opioid use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines urging prescribing physicians to move away from prescribing opioids and rely more on drug-free options. Based on the CDC guidelines, patients should choose non-opioid alternatives in the following scenarios:

  • When the risks outweigh the rewards: If you’re dealing with long-term, chronic pain, it’s best to try drug-free options first. Only use opioids when absolutely necessary or after drug-free options have failed. Opioid use may also be unadvisable if you have substance use disorder.
  •  When pain is related to lower-back pain, hip or knee osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia: The CDC has recommended the use of physical therapy for treatment of these conditions.
  • When opioids are prescribed: Even when a physician has prescribed opioids for legitimate reasons, the CDC recommends using the lowest effective dosage in combination with non-opioid therapies.
  • When pain persists for 90 days or more: For chronic pain, opioid use is the least favorable treatment strategy.[10]

The CDC [urges] prescribing physicians to move away from prescribing opioids and rely more on drug-free options.

Several drug-free pain management options are worth exploring for people who wish to avoid opioid use. In many cases, when a person remains committed to these strategies, they can produce positive long-term results.

  • Exercise & Nutrition: A physical therapist or personal trainer can help you strengthen your overall body and focus on specific areas of need.
  • Meditation: Meditation and other mindfulness techniques have been utilized for pain relief long before the advent of popular medicine, and current research shows that these types of alternative therapies are effective in relieving pain.[11]
  • Yoga: A recent study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that yoga has the opposite effect on the brain that chronic pain does. Yoga has been shown to potentially reduce the perception of pain.[12]
  • Chiropractic Therapy: Regular chiropractic care can reduce back and neck pain, while also improving sleep, flexibility, mobility and posture.
  • Acupuncture: This ancient healing technique has been practiced for thousands of years. Some research has shown acupuncture can be effective in treating back and neck pain while also preventing migraine headaches.[13]
  • Massage Therapy: While there is no empirical evidence that massage therapy is effective in treating all types of pain, many studies have shown that it may be helpful for lower back pain, headaches and neck pain.[14]

Explore Your Options at Seaside Palm Beach

If you’re a person stuck in the cycle of unending, excruciating pain and subsequent prescription opioid use and abuse as treatment, it may be time to reexamine your treatment options. Continuing down this path could lead to addiction, overdose or the eventual use and abuse of heroin instead. The last thing you want is for your pain treatment to become an addiction.

However, if you or someone you care for has already fallen into addiction due to pain treatment, our pain-management specialists at Seaside Palm Beach are eager and standing by ready to help. You don’t have to choose between a life of pain or a life of opioid addiction – allow us to show you another way. We offer several drug-free pain management options as well as recovery strategies for people struggling from opioid withdrawal and chronic pain simultaneously. Contact us today at 1-888-997-3274 to learn more about how we can help.