Treating chronic pain with non-drug therapies could produce better outcomes

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Researchers say using alternatives to prescription drugs was effective for the veterans involved in the study

While many consumers are quick to reach for prescription drugs when they suffer from chronic pain, a new study could have many rethinking their pain relief remedies. 

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs found that choosing alternative treatments over prescription drugs for chronic pain yielded better health outcomes in the long-term. 

“Chronic pain is associated with adverse outcomes, such as substance abuse and suicidal thoughts and behavior,” said researcher Dr. Esther Meerwijk. “If non-drug treatments make chronic pain more bearable, people may be more likely to have positive experiences in life. That makes them less likely to have thoughts of suicide or turn to drugs.” 

Steering clear of drugs

The researchers observed over 142,000 veterans, all of whom had served more or less than one year in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

When suffering from chronic pain, many patients are quick to receive a prescription for an opioid painkiller. Because experts are worried about the potential outcomes associated with such drugs, the researchers set out to discover how non-drug treatment options compared to prescriptions when it came to effectiveness. 

The researchers compared vets who received drugs for chronic pain with those who received alternative treatment plans. They found that those who didn’t receive drugs were not only feeling less pain, but they also had better mental health outcomes than their counterparts. 

Targeting the pain without drugs helped the vets fight off a number of side effects that are common when patients take prescription painkillers for extended periods of time. The researchers saw better results from the vets when it came to alcohol and drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm. 

“It made sense that if non-drug treatments are good at managing pain, their effect would go beyond pain relief,” said Dr. Meerwijk. “However, I was surprised that the results of our analyses held, despite our attempts to prove them wrong.” 

Alternative treatment options

While the researchers explained that the observational nature of the study makes it hard to create a clear cause and effect chain, these results were encouraging. The team hopes that medical professionals will consider alternative courses of treatment when patients present with chronic pain. Some of the remedies used in this study to treat the pain included: 

  • Electrical nerve stimulation

  • Acupuncture

  • Osteopathic spinal manipulation

  • Superficial heat treatment

  • Biofeedback

  • Ultrasonography 

  • Traction 

  • Chiropractic care

  • Dry needling

  • Exercise therapy 

  • Massage

  • Lumbar supports

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