Pain Relief Doesn't Always Have to Come in a Pill, Study Finds

PHOTO: A young woman massages her neck in this undated stock photo.Getty Images
A young woman massages her neck in this undated stock photo.

Serious and chronic pain can be debilitating for patients no matter how many pain relief pills they try. And as the opioid epidemic has continued to grow in the U.S., many health providers are less willing to prescribe large doses of prescription painkillers, which can lead to addiction.

In an effort to understand what else can be done for chronic pain, besides prescribing strong painkillers, a new study looked at whether alternative forms of pain relief from yoga to massage to meditation could have a measurable effect on pain.

"We don’t believe these approaches will be the [entire answer], but may be used as an adjunct to help reduce the reliance on opioid medications and associated side effects," lead author Richard Nahin, Lead Epidemiologist at National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health (NIH) told ABC News. "What we wanted to get from this review is to understand evidence-based approaches for pain management," focused on alternative treatments.

Researchers from the NIH analyzed 105 previous studies examining alternate forms of pain relief to if they were effective. Their findings were published today in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

These studies focused on techniques such as acupuncture, massage therapy, relaxation exercises and yoga. They found that these alternate therapies in fact can significantly help those with painful conditions, including back pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, neck pain, severe headaches and migraines.

The researchers found that acupuncture and yoga appeared to be a beneficial alternative treatments for back pain. For patients dealing with neck pain, studies found that massage therapy was helpful.

People dealing with severe headaches or migraines responded well to relaxation techniques as a way to keep their heads from pounding.

But, there was one instance of alternate therapy the researchers found was not effective for pain relief, after researching multiple trials: the supplement called glucosamine used for osteoarthritis.

Nahin said the goal is to help both patients and health providers consider other options for pain relief besides prescription medications that come with sometimes significant side effects. These tools are not being considered as a full replacement for current methods of pain relief, but a way to supplement current medications.

Dr. Neil Jolly, an anesthesiologist and interventional pain physician and Partner at Louisiana Pain Specialists, added that the study has provided more evidence that alternate therapies should be considered along with traditional medications.

"This article should further increase physician awareness on treating our pain patients with a multi-[prong] approach," said Jolly.

New regulations recently enacted in light of the potentially dangerous side effects of some pain medications, have limited what physicians can prescribe for their patients, he added. The approach in his practice, he said, is to immediately lower the patients' medication dosage once their pain has decreased -- and also look to alternative therapies.