Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery

Pain relief takes many forms. This Special Health Report, Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery, looks beyond the standard approaches of drugs and surgery and explores alternate pain-relief strategies, from acupuncture and mind-body therapies to spinal manipulation, physical and occupational therapies, herbal remedies, mindfulness meditation, and music therapy among others. The report also provides specific treatments for 10 common pain conditions.

Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery Cover

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Pain relief doesn’t always come in a bottle of pills. Pain can take many forms and relief is not a one-size fits all process. This Special Health Report, Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery, explores beyond the boundaries of standard medical treatments (drugs and surgery) and describes the many other approaches that are available for pain relief.

Pain is debilitating, interfering with the ability to sleep, work, and enjoy life. It can aggravate other health conditions and lead to depression and anxiety symptoms. Relieving it often requires a trial-and-error approach that embraces the whole person, not just the source, which cannot always be identified clearly. Many people find it useful to choose from a menu of different pain treatments and remedies, combining them in a regimen that fits their lifestyles.

In addition to the standard pain medications, and surgical repairs of specific problems, patients and their clinicians also have access to a wide range of nondrug therapies for pain. Acupuncture, biofeedback, topical treatments, assistive devices, tai chi and yoga are just a few of the many options available. Not everyone is able or willing to take pain medication every day, and not everyone can or should have surgery for painful conditions. The good news is that mainstream medicine is embracing a wider variety of treatments than ever before. And it’s important to recognize when it’s time to see a physician for an evaluation of pain. If a new pain develops and persists beyond a few days, check with your doctor. And see a doctor immediately if you have chest pain or anything else that could be serious. Severe pain should always be a signal that medical consultation is needed.

Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery​ compiles the latest information on a variety of nondrug pain-relieving therapies and their applications to a number of common types of pain. It also provides specific treatments for 10 common pain conditions including low back pain, knee pain, shingles, heel pain, fibromyalgia, and others.

Pain Relief Without Drugs or Surgery was prepared in collaboration with the editors of Harvard Health Publishing and Melissa L. Colbert, MD, Instructor in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School, Interim Medical Director, Spaulding Rehabilitation Outpatient Center (2019).

  • The nature of pain 
    • Ouch: Nociceptive pain
    • Groan: Neuropathic pain
    • Modifying the pain signal
    • Pain and the mind-body connection
  • Finding relief: Start with your doctor
    • Components of a pain assessment
  • Pain relief techniques
    • Cold and heat
    • Exercise
    • Physical therapy and occupational therapy
    • Mind-body techniques
    • Yoga and tai chi
    • Biofeedback
    • Music therapy
    • Therapeutic massage
    • Spinal manipulation
    • Acupuncture
    • Pain-relieving devices
    • Herbal pain relievers and dietary supplements
  • 10 common types of pain and how to relieve them
    • Low back pain
    • Hip and knee osteoarthritis
    • Hand osteoarthritis
    • Shingles nerve pain
    • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
    • Tension headaches and migraines
    • Carpal tunnel syndrome
    • Plantar fasciitis
    • Fibromyalgia 
    • Menstrual pain
  • Resources
  • Glossary

When pain signals a medical emergency

Most pain can be managed without a trip to the doctor. A bruised knee, a pulled muscle—these can be treated at home with some combination of rest, ice, and heat . But certain kinds of pain indicate real danger. Following are some symptoms that require immediate attention from trained medical personnel.

Chest pain. Call 911 immediately. The worry, of course, is that you may be having a heart attack or another serious medical event such as a pulmonary embolism (a blockage of an artery in the lung). Typical heart attack symptoms include heavy pressure or tightness in the chest; crushing pain that goes to the neck, the jaw, the left arm, or the back; and pain accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, or nausea. (Note that women having a heart attack often do not have crushing chest pain, but rather a cluster of symptoms such as shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and unexplained fatigue.)

Pelvic pain. Severe new pelvic pain can be a sign of appendicitis or, in women, a ruptured ovarian cyst or an early ectopic pregnancy.

Sudden severe headache. Get immediate care if you get a headache that is the worst you’ve ever experienced, or if the pain is accompanied by fever, vomiting, stiffness, seizures, a rash, visual disturbances, trouble speaking, or weakness. You could be having a stroke or have an infection of the brain such as meningitis. Also seek medical care after any head injury, which can cause a concussion or life-threatening swelling of the brain.

Severe or persistent abdominal pain. If abdominal pain is very severe, persists, or is accompanied by symptoms such as a fever, abdominal tenderness, or blood in the stool, you may have a serious medical problem such as appendicitis, diverticulitis, pancreatitis, or inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis). These conditions require immediate medical care.

Eye pain. See an eye doctor for evaluation if you get hit directly in the eye, you have stabbing pain in the eye, your eye turns red along with pain, your vision is impaired, or you see sudden flashes of light. These symptoms can indicate a serious eye problem such as an infection, glaucoma, a detached retina, or inflammation inside the eye (iritis or uveitis).

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