Non-Medication Pain Relief

Medicine can be very effective for some people with chronic pain but not others. In addition, long term pain medicine can have difficult side effects. Having more than one pain relief option may help you to improve pain management. It may also allow you to decrease or stop pain medicine.

The Options

The feeling of pain is very complex. Everyone has a different tolerance level of pain. Physical changes like injury or swelling are obvious causes of pain. For others, the cause is not clear. Sometimes nerves send signals for pain even if a problem doesn’t exist. And how you feel and think about pain and your chance of recovery can also dictate your level of pain.

The good news is that because pain is so complex, there are a number of options for care. You can learn some of these methods on your own, but may need help to learn others. A pain specialist may be able to guide you to the right options. Examples of options include:

Heat and Cold

Most of us have held an ice pack on a twisted ankle or placed a heating pad on a sore back, but do you know why?

  • Ice can decrease swelling in the area. Less pressure can reduce pain. It can also numb the area for a short period of time.
  • Heat can increase blood flow to the area. It can reduce stiffness and tight muscles.

You may find that one or both of these options work best for you. When you use heat or cold, apply it 15 minutes at a time. Allow the body part to return to a temperature before you use it again. Some find switching between heat and cold works best for them.

An ice or heat pack is a convenient option, but there are several other options such as:

  • Moist heat may be better than dry heat. Use a warm towel or a soak in the tub.
  • For a handy ice rub, fill a small paper cup with water. Place it in the freezer until it is solid. Peel back the paper cup to expose the ice. Rub it over bumpy areas like the foot or elbow.
  • Use iced washcloths over larger parts of the body.

Check the treated area closely during treatment. Look for signs of too much heat or cold.


Stress and tension can make pain worse and make you feel bad overall. There are a number of relaxation techniques you can use. Some are quick habits you can do anywhere, others need a bit more time.

Search for audio and video downloads to help you relax. There are many breathing techniques that may help. For example, take many deep breaths, and then focus on your breathing, or a word or sound. Try not to let your thoughts wander. Start with just a few minutes at a time than gradually increase the amount of time.

Muscle Relaxation

Muscle relaxation is a method of tightening then relaxing muscles throughout the body. This method can help release tension. Focus on one muscle group at a time.

  • Start at your feet and then move up.
  • Tense the muscles tightly and hold for about 5 seconds.
  • Then let the muscle completely relax for 15 seconds. You should feel a big difference between when you are tensing the muscle and when it is relaxed.
  • Repeat until it the muscle feels heavy and relaxed. Then move to the next muscle group.


No one feels good when they are tense. Muscle relaxation can help physical symptoms. Imagery can help your mind relax. Imagery lets you picture what it would be like to let the pain go. You can use all your senses to take yourself to a favorite place. It can be the beach, mountains, or a grand library. Music, nature sounds, and audio can help beginners. This can help you redirect your thinking away from your pain and let you relax.


It can be hard to know all the ways your body responds to stress. Biofeedback uses sensors and a computer to show you changes in your body. It can alert you to changes in muscle tension, heart rate, and skin temperature. Being aware of these changes early can help you stop them before they become worse. Over time it improves your reaction to stress and pain. Biofeedback may be most useful with conditions linked to muscle spasms or tension, like some headaches.


Pain can make it harder to get up and get active. But, the less active you are, the worse your pain and overall health will be. Exercise can:

  • Increase strength to support painful joints
  • Improve muscle endurance to increase energy
  • Relax tense muscles
  • Make endorphins—chemicals in your brain that ease pain

An exercise specialist or physical therapist may be able to help you find a program that helps without making pain worse. There are plenty of options. Look for activities that work best for you:

  • Low impact options like yoga or swimming may help you get started.
  • Pace yourself when you start. Don't do too much too fast.
  • You may need to adjust your routine during good or bad days, but try to commit to doing something on most days.

Think Positive

The way you think about your pain can affect how much of it you feel. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help change how you think of your pain. It can redirect negative thoughts and help you lean towards a more positive outlook.

Other Options

Other methods that may help include:

  • Acupuncture—there is mixed data about using this method to treat pain. It may be worth trying if other options have not been helpful.
  • Daily meditation may be a great tool to fight pain. There are a number of ways to do it. Try to find a style that is right for you.
  • Hypnosis can help you feel more relaxed. Look for a trained and licensed hypnotherapist.

It may take some trial and error to find pain relief methods that are best for you. Ask your medical care team for suggestions. You may find a combination of approaches works best.


American Chronic Pain Association
American Pain Foundation


Canadian Psychiatric Association


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Last reviewed October 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 4/20/2018

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