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Holistic Alternatives to Opioids for Pain Management

This entry was posted in Opiates & Opioids and tagged on by .

Last Updated on January 25, 2021 by Carol Gillette

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Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Written by Diane Ridaeus
Medically Reviewed by Dr Samuel Lee MD

Holistic alternatives to opioids for pain management are providing a much wider field of choices for those suffering acute or chronic pain. Opioids are some of the most effective painkilling substances known to man. Unfortunately, these substances are highly addictive and destructive when abused. The CDC reported in 2019 that 7 out of every 10 deaths from a drug overdose were opioid-related. The United States currently faces an ongoing epidemic of opioid overdoses and deaths from opioid abuse.1

Many of the victims of this epidemic do not fit the typical profile of an opioid addict. Many of these people developed addictions to their painkillers after suffering sports-related injuries, injuries from car accidents, and after necessary surgeries. It is essential for anyone taking opioid medications to understand the extreme risks of these drugs and consider opioid alternatives like holistic treatments.

Potential Benefits of Holistic Pain Management

holistic pain managementMany Americans look at holistic pain management with understandable scrutiny. Therapies like massage, acupuncture, and light therapy may seem effective in only limited capacities, but the reality is that these treatments can be highly effective and valuable alternatives to opioid medications for various types of pain.

The most important benefit of holistic pain management methods is there is no risk of addiction, no risk of overdose, no risk of respiratory failure, etc. Holistic therapy does not require consuming any type of drug or medication for the therapy to work. Many holistic treatments use therapeutic techniques with thousands of years of history behind them, such as acupuncture, which has remained a staple of Eastern medicine for thousands of years.2

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Exercise and Physical Therapy

alternatives to opioidsSubstance abuse takes a heavy toll on the body. Many people in addiction rehab participate in various types of physical therapy and exercise therapy to get their bodies better prepared to handle the rigors and stresses of sober living. Similarly, some people who struggle with certain kinds of chronic pain may benefit from individualized exercise plans and ongoing physical therapy.

Exercise releases endorphins, a natural pain-fighting substance produced in the body in response to stress. Regular endorphin release can significantly reduce the occurrence and severity of pain symptoms. However, some types of pain may prevent extensive exercise or may limit an individual’s exercising options for a time. An appropriately modified and gentle regimen could be designed to accommodate such cases, who could then still benefit.3

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

counselingMany people do not understand the links between psychological health and physical pain. Some psychological conditions like depression can cause physical symptoms to manifest like poor immune system functioning, greater levels of inflammation, and overall higher pain intensity. Cognitive-behavioral therapy exists to analyze a patient’s feelings and struggles with mental illness and help the patient process them more safely and effectively.

Studies have shown positive results in patients who underwent cognitive behavioral therapy for mental health issues causing physical pain symptoms, but some people with physical symptoms and no obvious mental health issues or official diagnoses may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy. For example, a 12-week cognitive behavioral therapy study reported that the program improved pain symptoms in fibromyalgia patients.4


Acupuncturealternatives to opioids is a long-standing practice in Eastern medicine, involving the use of dozens of specialized pins that when placed on specific parts of a patient’s body cause the muscles to relax, loosening the body, and reducing inflammation. Acupuncture patients report a wide range of benefits even beyond less pain, including higher energy levels, more flexibility, and an easier time getting out of bed in the morning. Most people who undergo acupuncture treatments do so for an extended time with sessions every few weeks, or more frequently for those with severe chronic pain symptoms.

Acupuncture is widely acknowledged as an effective holistic alternative to opioids for pain management.2

Stress Management Techniques

stress reduction techniquesEveryone has unique physiological responses to stress. Stress can easily cause physical pain symptoms or exacerbate existing pain symptoms. Various holistic alternatives to opioids for pain management can help an individual without the use of potentially dangerous medications. Meditation, mindfulness exercises, and various other stress-relief therapies can improve physical pain symptoms of stress and eventually help a person process his or her daily stress in more constructive ways.5

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Nutritional Therapy

Poor diet leads to immune system decline and higher susceptibility to some types of pain. Healthier eating habits may not necessarily stop pain symptoms or reduce pain, but making more consistent healthy eating choices can improve the way the body handles pain and help prevent injuries from physical stress. During substance abuse treatment, most new patients receive nutritional therapy, vitamin replacement therapy, and other diet-focused support to improve overall health after suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, and infectious diseases from prolonged substance abuse.


massage therapyMassages are not just a great way to relax after a stressful week at work; many people who struggle with chronic pain report that their pain symptoms subside following massage sessions. A professional massage can loosen stressed muscles, reduce inflammation, and promote healthier blood flow to injured parts of the body to speed the healing process. Massage also often plays a role in physical therapy and ongoing rehabilitation for acute injury victims.

Over-the-Counter Pain Medications

Common over-the-counter pain medications available without a prescription can offer a significant amount of pain relief, especially when used responsibly and in conjunction with holistic therapies like massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy. Acetaminophen, commonly sold under the brand name Tylenol, is actually a first-line treatment according to the American College of Rheumatology. These non-opioid painkillers are tremendously effective at treating pain without the risk of addiction that opioid medications present. However, prolonged consistent use of Tylenol or other over-the-counter pain medications may pose problems for internal organ function in some individuals.

Alternatives to Opioids for Pain Management

  • Exercise and physical therapy
  • CBT
  • Acupuncture*
  • Stress management techniques
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Massage
  • OTC medications

* Acupuncture has been found to be effective for persistent chronic pain as noted in the Journal of Pain article of November 30, 2017.6

Understanding the Risk of Opioid Addiction

Opioid painkillers may be extremely effective at treating various types of pain symptoms, but ultimately every type of opioid poses a risk of addiction, even with a single dose. Opioids quickly build tolerance in a user, causing him or her to need increasingly larger doses to feel the desired effects.

  • An opioid medication may seem perfectly effective at treating a person’s pain symptoms for a while. But after a few weeks or months, the effects will start to decline. The person may feel tempted to take more than prescribed to account for his or her tolerance. This is an extremely dangerous pattern for anyone, so it is vital if you are experiencing any type of consistent pain symptoms to consider the value of holistic alternatives to opioids.

1. CDC ” STATCAST – Week of Sept 6, 2019” [PDF version of transcript} Internet [cited 2020 Oct 13]

2. Harvard Health, “Relieving pain with acupuncture.” [Internet] N.D. [cited 2020 Oct 13]

3. Physiopedia, “Exercise and Activity in Pain Management.” {Internet] N.D. [cited 2020 Oct 13]

4. Menga G, et al., “Fibromyalgia: Can Online Cognitive Behavior Therapy Help?” PubMed ID 25249800, 2014 Fall Issue of the Ochner Journal, [cited 2020 Oct 1]

5. Brown A, “62 Stress Management Techniques, Strategies, and Activities.” Positive Psychology [Internet] 2020 Oct 12 [cited 2020 Oct 13]

6. Vickers AJ, Vertosick EA, Lewith G, Witt CM, Linde K “Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis” The Journal of Pain, U.S. Association for the Study of Pain, 2017 Nov 30 [cited 2020 Oct 13]

This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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