Drug-Free Zone: Alternative Pain Relief

Written by Jenny Peterson

Alternative pain relief may be worth exploring for certain types of chronic pain, such as arthritis. These low- and no-risk therapies naturally address ailments without the use of traditional medications. “I always tell my patients to dig for the source of the pain rather than just treat it,” says Dr. Emily Young, a primary care doctor with Roper St. Francis Healthcare. Alternative therapies, which may include acupuncture, massage, meditation and yoga, can either be used in place of conventional medicines or alongside these standard treatments.


Hot/cold compress: Ice and heat have long been safely used for treating pain. Ice therapy is particularly good for inflamed joints, whereas heat is helpful for muscle strains and spasms. However, too much heat or ice can damage the skin, so use these methods while awake rather than overnight.

Massage: Whether performed by a human or with a mechanized tool, massages work to loosen tightened muscles and offer pain relief.

Exercise: “Extra weight puts stress on the knees, hips and other joints, causing pain,” says Dr. Young. Thirty to 60 minutes of walking each day and core strengthening exercises like yoga are excellent for addressing mild back and joint pain.

Time: Sometimes rest is all that’s needed to reduce pain.

Acupuncture: The ancient practice of acupuncture can do wonders for pain relief in some patients, Dr. Young explains. However, people should be cautioned that anytime the skin is punctured, there’s a risk for bleeding and infection.


Always talk with your primary care doctor about your plans to start any alternative pain relief therapies. The amount of research on alternative medicine approaches varies widely depending on the practice, so patients should discuss options with their doctor. There are many studies on the effects of acupuncture and yoga; however, there have been fewer studies on other newer approaches. Discontinue use if you develop new symptoms or allergies to alternative therapies.