The opioid epidemic has been a national crisis since the 1990s. Most recently, opioids caused two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2020, so they’re still widely available despite being highly addictive.
If you live with chronic pain, doctors may have prescribed or suggested using opioids to treat your symptoms. However, that can come with significant risks. Anyone seeking a non-opioid treatment for chronic pain, injuries, or surgery recovery can talk with their doctor about these alternatives to find relief without risking their long-term health.
You’ve seen acetaminophen many times before and may even have it in your home right now. It’s an over-the-counter pain reliever that is the primary product for brands like Tylenol or Panadol. People might believe it isn’t the strongest painkiller because it’s readily available, but research proves that wrong.
However, acetaminophen also has side effects when taken improperly. Continually high doses can damage your liver and should not mix with alcohol. It would increase the risk of liver damage because the two substances are complex for the liver to process simultaneously.
2. Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatories
People are often surprised to learn they have nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) in their bathroom drawers or cabinets. They’re painkillers branded as Advil, Motrin, or Excedrin and are available at most pharmacies, grocery stores, and gas stations.
NSAIDs can assist with pain management because they reduce cellular inflammation in your nervous system. When dealing with an injury or a chronic medical condition, it can cause cellular swelling that puts your nervous system on high alert. The abnormal activity translates to pain.
Your doctor will know more about the possibility of your condition resulting from inflammation. If they recommend trying NSAIDs, it could make your pain more manageable. However, always follow the directions on your chosen product. Taking NSAIDs on an empty stomach can erode the lining and too many high doses can risk heart problems.
Using recommended NSAIDs once a day likely won’t result in any tolerance to low doses either. You can take the same quantity and get the same relief each time — opioids have the opposite effect. Even if you start with a small amount, the opioid receptors in your brain require higher quantities of the drug to match any previous pain relief. The effect grows exponentially, leading to many people accidentally or unknowingly becoming addicted to opioids.
3. Tricyclic Antidepressants
Although depression causes mental anguish, you might not connect it with physical pain. The good news is tricyclic antidepressants prescribed for depression are becoming more well-known as a pain management option for some people.
Researchers with the Gastroenterology & Hepatology journal found when patients with irritable bowel disease (IBD) took tricyclic antidepressants, they experienced positive anti-inflammatory side effects in addition to their depression management. Without inflammation in their gut, the IBD patients had less daily pain.
Taking this type of antidepressant can also help with the mental side effects of chronic pain or injury recovery. Depression stemming from a change in your quality of life and the seeming loss of control over your body can amplify physical pain. Treating both is a comprehensive approach to better health and doesn’t include the addiction risks associated with taking opioids.
When someone has a seizure, their nervous system fires rapid messages to the brain. Anti-seizure medications like Gabapentinoids slow down the nervous system to soothe it out of any inflamed pain. It also successfully diverts pain messages that aren’t real and are actually misfiring nerves creating the perception of pain.
Sometimes Gabapentinoids can be a non-opioid treatment for chronic pain when your doctor advises. It reduces nervous system activity related to active pain and treats false pain that might cause your ongoing discomfort.
This type of medication is much less addictive than opioids. Many people in addiction treatment programs often get Gabapentinoid prescriptions to treat their withdrawal. It doesn’t create the same neural pathways to addiction that opioids do, so it’s much less risky. Drowsiness, nausea, and mood changes are the most significant side effects when taken without a prescription or a doctor’s advice.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is in products available at many places like grocery and home goods stores. It’s an oil drawn from Cannabis indica and Sativa plants that may reduce some forms of pain. People often confuse it with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) because they come from the same plant. However, CBD doesn’t have the psychoactive or euphoric effects THC does.
CBD has some analgesic effects when taken by itself and may reduce cellular inflammation. The research is relatively new to the scientific community, so it’s not the top recommendation for pain treatment. It won’t be the strongest painkiller outside of opiates, but it may be worth considering for people who can’t swallow pills.
There are numerous ways to ingest CBD and enjoy its pain relief — oils, lotions, face masks, and other products that don’t come in caplet form. This relieves many suffering from chronic pain who have strong gag refluxes. Talk with your doctor if you’re curious about adding CBD to your pain management plan.
6. Nerve Blocking Injections
Although nerve-blocking or numbing injections aren’t a standard recommendation for daily pain management, they can be an option when your discomfort remains high for extended periods. A doctor may administer the injection at the point of your pain or next to it.
When the injection travels through your bloodstream, it calms inflamed nerves and numbs. It can immediately turn off pain signals, so it’s most often a pain treatment before surgeries, scans, or other invasive medical procedures.
Your doctor will want to watch how your body responds to your first round of injections to determine if they’re helpful for your condition. If they approve, the pain-free periods could allow your nervous system to heal and experience less pain when the anesthesia wears off.
You could also try acupuncture as a non-opioid treatment for chronic pain. Skeptics often wonder if the tiny needles relieve pain through a placebo effect, but research shows real relief that’s different from a placebo effect caused in the same study.
A professional acupuncturist would tap tiny needles into specific areas of your body based on where you experience pain and your nervous system. The pressure can gently stimulate the same nerves, redirecting the pain. You should expect to sit still for 20–60 minutes until the acupuncturist removes the disposable needles.
Anyone interested in acupuncture should know how to identify professionals and people pretending to be experts. Laws vary by state, but most trained acupuncture practitioners will have a certification from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. You can also call your insurance provider to see if your plan covers acupuncture before your first appointment.
Find Help for Your Pain Management
People often think the strongest painkiller is the only solution to their chronic pain or painful recovery. Opioids might temporarily relieve your pain, but they’re also highly addictive. Talk with your doctor about these non-opioid alternatives to see if they’re viable, less-risky options for your needs.