Pain relief outside the pill bottle

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

When you feel pain, do you automatically reach for a pill? Maybe it’s time to rethink that reaction. The idea that pain relief resides only in a bottle of pills is a common misconception, Harvard Medical School experts say. While medication often plays an important role in quelling pain, there’s a large arsenal of drug-free pain-relief therapies and techniques.

The Institute of Medicine estimates that 116 million adults experience chronic pain each year. It has called for “a cultural transformation in how the nation understands and approaches pain management and prevention.” Improved pain management should include a combination of therapies and coping techniques, the institute said. And a recent New York Times investigation revealed that the use of strong pain killers used too early and for too long can delay a person’s return to work and drive up the cost of treatment.

In studying pain and how to modify it, researchers and doctors often think in terms of the “gate control” theory, said Diana Post, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. This concept holds that pain impulses can be dampened in a part of the spinal cord, called the dorsal horn, before they reach the brain. When an injury or other painful stimulus activates tiny nerve fibers, it opens the “gate” so a pain signal is sent to the brain. But if other sensory signals are coming in from other parts of the body at the same time, neurons in the spinal cord effectively disconnect the pain message and close the “gate.”  Here’s a practical example: Pediatricians often try to reduce the pain of inoculations for children by rubbing the child’s skin immediately after giving the shot to offset, or garble, the original pain signal.

Other pain-relief therapies abound, Post said. These include:

  • biofeedback
  • ice
  • heat
  • exercise
  • psychotherapy
  • acupuncture
  • hypnosis
  • massage
  • mind-body relaxation techniques
  • chiropractic
  • physical therapy
  • and occupational therapy.

These techniques can be used alone, in combination, and even in combination with drug therapy.

Not every therapy is right for every person. “Relieving pain often requires a trial-and-error approach that embraces the whole person, not just the source of the pain which cannot always be identified clearly,” Post said. With this in mind, Harvard Medical School is publishing Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery, a new Special Health Report that covers the latest information on pain relief therapies. Dr. Post, the report’s medical editor, advises readers about the wide array of pain-relief techniques and also describes ten common types of pain and how to relieve them using non-drug, non-surgical strategies.

For example, the abdominal pain of irritable bowel syndrome is often triggered by emotional stress. Studies show that psychotherapy, mind-body relaxation techniques, and hypnosis therapy offer some relief to some people with IBS. Hypnosis therapy, for example, can reduce IBS pain significantly, according to a study published in the journal Gut. In this study, Researchers found that 12 weekly one-hour hypnosis sessions led to a reduction in IBS symptoms in 17% of the 204 patients. Many licensed mental health professionals are trained in hypnosis therapy.

Another non-drug strategy that may be useful for relieving several kinds of pain is Tai Chi. This exercise regimen consists of a series of postures that are performed in a set sequence. You move in a flowing motion from one posture to the next while centering your mind by focusing on an area just below the navel, described by practitioners as the body’s storage point for chi (energy). On the physical side, practice enhances balance, coordination, flexibility, muscle strength, and stamina. On the mental side, tai chi helps to relieve stress, improves body awareness, and reduces social isolation when done in a group setting. Emerging research shows that tai chi has many positive attributes for people with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, tension headache, and other painful conditions.

Using non-drug therapies can be an empowering experience. Most of these therapies do not carry the risk of side effects as do most drugs. And many non-drug therapies are self help techniques you can do by yourself or learn from a therapist. If you do try any pain-relief strategy, keep safety in mind, Post said. It’s important to know when to report pain to a doctor. Call your doctor if a new pain develops and persists beyond a few days. Call 911 for chest pain or any severe pain.

You can read a free excerpt from the report on mind-body techniques for pain relief, or order the report online from Harvard Health Publishing.


  1. John Harrison

    Very thoughtful blog post! I agree with James, alternate therapies and techniques should be use more widely. Cheers from the UK

    John Harrison

  2. Brandon

    drug free and pain free therapies don’t always work. The medication does help some times but abusing it just ruins the purpose.

  3. Kristinakathy

    Great information has been shared. I would like to share it with others.

  4. Jeanne Thompson

    Suffering from physical pain because of plenty of internal and external factors is really a terrible experience. Pain management is an excellent approach to relieve that awful feeling so you can have a normal life. Don’t be afraid to try out non traditional methods for pain alleviation. There are a lot actually. Try them and find out what works best for you. Do not allow pain mess up your way of life. Synergy Institute

  5. thanh

    I have read that yoga can do a lot for pain relief- I guess that would fit under your category of ‘mind body relaxation’. There was a recent study that showed promise for people with a lot of back pain. I guess it would help for other body parts too.

  6. Darlene Brown

    I agree with this report. We feel pain for a reason – something is wrong. If you take the time to listen to your body and as a therapist, investigate what is going on with the body – you will find it is easily fixed without medications.
    Our society is too quick to take the easy option of a ‘pill’ to reduce pain instead of changing lifestyle or investigating the why’s because that takes more effort. In many cases it is not until it becomes a regular occurrence that people get frustrated and look into the problem behind the pain.
    Society has become a victim of pharmaceutical marketing and the idea of others fixing their problems.

  7. Anonymous

    I prefer hypnosis as the best pain relief. It’s natural and so there is no side effects! I strongly recommend that.

  8. Charles

    There are some herbal supplements that may help in alleviating pain as well. There is good scientific evidence to suggest that bromelian, clove, and Devil’s Claw can relieve one of aches and pains. It’s always best to check with your doctor before taking these supplements, but as mentioned in the article, some of these alternative therapies provide benefit with fewer side-effects.
    Note: These postings are my own and do not necessarily represent Natural Standard’s positions, strategies or opinions.

  9. meital

    I agree, pain medication usage has become an epidemic in the USA and not everyone knows about the potential side effects and actual dangers these pills can expose you to. I know about an amazing mthod that stopps tension headache in 5 minutes (!) using pressure points in the neck.

  10. Eric Pollitt

    I submitted an informative comment, including how to help with sciatia (inflammation of the largest nerve in the body), but Harvard will not post it? Serious, the enzymes I wrote of are the only thing that helped and will not hurt you. 800mg Motrin/Advil 4X a day will end up harming you.

  11. Marcia

    I’m in the UK and really enjoy your informative newsletter.
    Can you advise me and others who are hypermobile, please?
    Recently i have been told that I must not do the regular stretching exercises because my ligaments are already too slack and I will make them worse. To give you an idea – I was able to lock back my knee the day after replacement surgery. My two children also have this condition.
    Where should one look to find suitable joint strengthening exercise, please? It’s too late for me at 66 but others may benefit.
    Biofeedback and O.T. are the only pain control methods I haven’t tried, plus others you don’t mention. Even Fentanyl patches won’t now hold off the pain and nsaids have ruined my stomach lining so now take COX2 for anti-inflamation. Any other pain control methods would be welcomed, I’m experience a pain level now which overides ‘controlled’ drugs.

  12. Jenny

    I have read that yoga can do a lot for pain relief- I guess that would fit under your category of ‘mind body relaxation’. There was a recent study that showed promise for people with a lot of back pain. I guess it would help for other body parts too.


  13. Pete

    Excellent blog and very informative. I believe it is very important to spread the word that pain relief is available outside of medication as so many seem oblivious to this knowledge. It is sad how many rely totally on pain relief drugs and have no understanding of why they have ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days.

  14. James Andrey

    Prescription medication has purpose and place in the medical field and has definitely proven to be beneficial in helping millions of people overcome their diseases, but why not try a drug-free pain-relief therapies and techniques.

    James Andrey

  15. sara

    replace all the pills with a placebo pill… cant be as bad. sometimes its so second nature its become psychological.

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