Reducing pain without pills

Is it possible to relieve pain without popping a pill?

Pain can be so debilitating and most of us turn to an over the counter traditional painkiller for relief – but there are alternatives that some say work just as well.  Here we compare traditional painkillers alongside a range of alternative easily available options that may be worth considering.

So many pills…

Statistics from the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB) tell us that approximately 27 million packs of over the counter products containing codeine are sold in the UK each year and in 2012 according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) nearly 65 million prescriptions for painkillers were dispensed in England alone.  As a nation, we take an awful lot of pills!

Traditional pain relief

So how do we deal with pain?  The majority of us use traditional pain relief for mild or moderate pain generally taking the form of over the counter painkillers or analgesics or sometimes prescribed medication aimed at relieving more severe pain.

These can be broken down into the following categories:

  • General pain – we tend to take paracetamol
  • Joint and muscle pain – we would choose non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.
  • Moderate to severe pain – we would traditionally choose opiate-based painkillers such as codeine, co-codamol, dihydrocodeine or morphine sulphate. Some of these can be obtained over the counter but others require a prescription.
  • Neck, shoulder or back pain – nerve painkillers may be prescribed in the form of amitriptyline or gabapentin.

Side effects

We are so used to taking the odd pill that we seem to forget there can be side effects.

Dr Alasdair Wright, our expert GP, explains “the liver can be seriously damaged if paracetamol is taken in excess.  It is, therefore, a particularly high-risk medication if the quantity absorbed by the body is not taken into consideration.

There are also risks with NSAIDs.  If used regularly they can cause gastrointestinal upsets and may affect blood pressure, kidney function, and the cardiovascular system.

As for nerve painkillers, they leave us feeling drowsy and opiate-based painkillers, such as codeine, can be addictive.  These sorts of painkillers should only be used short-term as their effectiveness diminishes the longer we take them.”

What can we take instead?

There are plenty of alternatives to the traditional painkiller and even ways to help our bodies manage pain alongside taking the traditional options.  Here are a few of the most common:

Natural supplements – as alternatives to NSAIDs Omega 3 fatty acids or fish oils can ease inflammation and pain, they are safer to take and can help with a variety of conditions such as arthritis.

Reflexology – this is a treatment based on the idea there are specific reflex areas on the feet, lower legs, hands, face or ear that correspond to different parts of the body.  Gentle pressure applied on these points may help symptoms and causes of pain.  “Reflexology encourages the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals,” says Dr Carol Samuel, a reflexologist from the University of Plymouth.  “With conditions such as osteoarthritis and backache, reflexology may be used alongside conventional medicine with great results.”

Acupuncture – the British Acupuncture Council tells us that traditional acupuncture takes the idea that pain is a sign that the body is out of balance and so by inserting ultra-thin needles into certain acupuncture points a natural healing response will be triggered so enabling the body’s vital energy to flow freely again.  Dr Wright explains that for those who respond well to acupuncture it can be a very effective way of reducing pain levels.

Relaxation and mindfulness – being stressed and anxious can make the pain worse so practising meditation, yoga or pilates may help to calm both body and mind and therefore reduce pain.

Read more on practising mindfulness for better health and reducing pain.

All of us are different and may respond to treatments in very different ways so if you are in any doubt as to how to manage your pain then you should consult with your medical professional.

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