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Opioids can be highly addictive, but healthcare providers are still writing enough prescriptions for painkillers each year for every American adult to have a bottle of pills. Are opioids the only answer for people who are suffering from acute or chronic pain? There are many alternatives to opiate based medication for pain management available, and plenty of scientific data to support their effectiveness.

Choosing an alternative to opioids for pain could be the difference between pain relief and addiction, particularly for teens or young children who are at a higher risk of addiction due to their developing brains.

7 Alternatives to Opioids for Pain Management


Acupuncture uses needles to stimulate certain points on or under the skin. This method of treating pain, nausea, and many other conditions has been used in Eastern medicine for centuries.

How does acupuncture work?

The needles are thought to stimulate nerves, which then:

  • Send signals to the brain to release feel-good hormones such as beta-Endorphins
  • Reduce pro-inflammatory markers that lead to inflammation and pain
  • Stimulate nerve growth factor that helps the nerve to regenerate

How effective is acupuncture?

According to Harvard Medical School, research from a team of international experts has provided evidence that acupuncture does provide real relief from common forms of pain. More than 29 studies revealed acupuncture to relieve pain by about 50%.


For most people, the idea of smelling something to make you feel better may sound a bit silly, at best. But aromatherapy has been used for pain management since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Peppermint oil, lavender oil, chamomile oil, and African marigold oil have been used for pain management ever since.

How does aromatherapy work?

According to Psychology Today, aromatherapy positively stimulates the limbic system of the brain to ease chronic pain and anxiety.

How effective is aromatherapy?

Cardiovascular surgeon, Mehmet Oz, MD, studied aromatherapy to expedite recovery time and reduce anxiety in his heart patients. “Aromatherapy is effective because it works directly on the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center,” says Dr. Oz. He recommends lavender, chamomile, or eucalyptus oil, or even the scent of green apples to reduce migraines and joint pain.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, aromatherapy has been shown to be effective to relieve anxiety, stress, depression, and in several clinical trials, aromatherapy has been used in laboring women to reduce the need for pain medications during labor. Rose, lavender, and frankincense were most effective in these trials.

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Massage Therapy

Many people seek out massage therapy for a number of reasons, including a drug-free alternative to pain management. Massage comes in two forms, relaxation and rehabilitative massage that can help rehabilitate injuries and reduce pain.

How does massage therapy work?

The stretching and kneading of soft tissues in the body, and pressure applied to various points on the body, relaxes muscles. But massage does more than just relax muscles; new research has shown that massage activates certain genes to directly reduce inflammation.

How effective is massage therapy?

The effectiveness of massage therapy for pain has been supported by various studies. It has been found most effective for non-specific lower back pain, both acute and chronic, but studies have also found massage to be effective for shoulder pain, headache pain, fibromyalgia, mixed chronic pain, and neck pain.

One specific type of massage known as Osteopathic Manual Treatment (OMT), has been found to be particularly effective for lower-back pain. OMT is administered by an osteopathic physician, rather than a massage professional. In a review of clinical studies, OMT was shown to provide significant reductions in lower back pain with results lasting up to three months.


Hypnotherapy is an alternative practice where a licensed hypnotherapist guides your mind to a highly focused mental state.

How does hypnotherapy work?

Hypnosis used for treatment of chronic pain typically involves a hypnotic induction followed by suggestions for comfort and relaxation. Patients are often taught a cue that they can then use on their own to quickly enter a state of comfort.

How effective is hypnotherapy?

A review of 13 controlled studies revealed that hypnosis is significantly effective for chronic pain conditions, including low-back pain, arthritis, cancer, and disability-related pain. In some cases, hypnotherapy reduced chronic pain for up to three months. In one controlled study, fibromyalgia patients who received hypnotherapy showed significant improvements in pain reduction, as well as fatigue and sleep patterns.

Chiropractic Treatment

Chiropractic care uses spinal manipulation to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints such as back pain, neck pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and joint pain.

How does chiropractic medicine work?

Chiropractors perform spinal manipulation, or adjustments, to manually restore joint mobility and heal injured tissues through controlled force. A chiropractor may also use postural and exercise education, ultrasound therapy, laser therapy, and ergonomic training as well.

How effective is chiropractic medicine?

The American Chiropractic Association provides excerpts and summaries from recent studies that support chiropractic care as an effective treatment for chronic and acute pain, headaches, and neck pain. The studies that are often quoted as supporting chiropractic care as an effective treatment, however, are often cited as having serious flaws in their reporting, execution, and design. However, this doesn’t stop an approximately 30 million people from receiving chiropractic treatment each year.


Natural pain treatments include herbal medicines—plants that are used to treat health problems including pain management. The seeds, berries, roots, bark, leaves, and flowers of plants have been used as medicine long before recorded history. Many modern day pharmacological medicines are based off herbal remedies.

How do herbal pain treatments work?

Many herbs have potent properties and multiple ingredients that have a beneficial effect on the body. Some herbs and plants have been shown to decrease inflammation and have the same pain relieving effects as NSAIDs.

How effective are herbal pain treatments?

Different herbs have different effects on the body. According to Everyday Health, the following herbal remedies can provide all-natural relief:

  • Capsaicin: Derived from chili peppers, capsaicin has been known to reduce the pain sensation to the central nervous system.
  • Ginger: The phytochemicals in ginger have been known to reduce inflammation.
  • Turmeric: The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, has been known to reduce inflammation and pain.

Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana is a controversial, non-opioid alternative for pain. More and more states are passing laws allowing medical marijuana use for conditions such as pain, headaches, nausea, seizures, and Crohn’s disease.

How does medical marijuana work?

Marijuana contains hundreds of chemical compounds, but THC is the cannabinoid in marijuana that has been most widely researched. THC binds to receptors in the brain to produce effects such as reducing pain or anxiety. THC also provides the sensation of being “high,” which makes this a controversial treatment option.

How effective is medical marijuana?

More than 60 peer reviewed studies were examined by ProCon.org, seven of which focused on marijuana effectiveness for pain relief. Six of the seven double-blind studies associated cannabis use with lowered chronic pain, and neuropathic pain.

According to a report by US Health News, medical marijuana appears to be a mostly safe treatment for chronic pain, without an increased risk of side effects. A study found that medical marijuana had a better safety profile when compared to opioids for long-term chronic pain.

There is no question that using opioid painkillers can lead to addiction, and put your entire family at risk for prescription drug misuse. There are many alternative treatments to pain relief, some more controversial than others, that may be a lower risk for your family and your health. Before you fill a prescription for an opioid painkiller, make sure you know all of the risks and alternative treatments available to you.