If you have chronic pain and are looking for alternatives to medication and surgery, you have a lot of options. Alternative pain treatments that doctors once scoffed at are now standard at many pain centers.
“That phrase ‘alternative pain treatments’ doesn’t mean much to me,” says Seddon R. Savage, MD, incoming president of the American Pain Society. “I think the line between them and mainstream treatment is pretty blurry now.”
However, not all alternative pain treatments work. Some can even be risky. Some alternative treatments may help with pain from bad backs, osteoarthritis, and headaches, but have no effect on chronic pain from fibromyalgia or diabetic nerve damage.
“You have to do your homework when you’re considering alternative treatments for pain,” warnsAnne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Nerve Injury Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.”Make sure that you’re trying a treatment that is likely to work in your case.” And always discuss any alternative pain treatments you want to try with your regular doctor.
Here’s a rundown of the most commonly used alternative treatments for chronic pain.
Acupuncture. Once seen as bizarre, acupuncture is rapidly becoming a mainstream treatment for pain. Studies have found that it works for pain caused by many conditions, including fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, back injuries, and sports injuries.
How does it work? No one’s quite sure. It could release pain-numbing chemicals in the body. Or it might block the pain signals coming from the nerves.
“I think there’s good scientific evidence for acupuncture and I prescribe it,” says F. Michael Ferrante, MD, director of the UCLA Pain Management Center in Los Angeles. “The nice thing is that even if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t do any harm.”
Marijuana. Setting aside the controversy, marijuana has been shown to have medicinal properties and can help with some types of chronic pain.
There’s strong evidence that marijuana has a modest effect on certain types of nerve pain — particularly pain caused by MS and HIV, says Steven P. Cohen, MD, associate professor in the division of pain medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Since it also relieves nausea, marijuana can help people who are suffering side effects from chemotherapy.
However, marijuana does have risks. For some people, Cohen says, those risks can be serious, including addiction and psychosis. Because of the dangers and the obvious potential for abuse, experts generally only turn to marijuana when all other treatments have failed.
On a practical level, you also need to be aware of the laws regarding the use of medical marijuana in your state. Could you be arrested for smoking marijuana for medical reasons? Talk to your doctor. There are also two prescription drugs, called pharmaceutical cannabinoids, that are derived from the active ingredient of marijuana. They are sometimes used for pain, although they are only FDA-approved for nausea caused by chemotherapy and HIV-related weight loss.