Suffering from pain can be a debilitating experience and taking anti-inflammatory painkillers is often the first course of action. But whilst it’s easy to pop a pill, have you ever considered what alternatives are available to help relieve your pain?
Over-the counter pain relief
It’s no fun experiencing aches, pains or strains, especially in muscles or joints, which is one of the reasons why we need effective forms of pain relief. Traditional forms of painkillers, or analgesics, include over-the-counter (OTC) medications, which tend to help mild to moderate pain, and prescribed medications, which are normally stronger and aimed at moderate to severe pain.
The chances are you’ll have used an OTC painkiller at some point if you’ve experienced pain, but many people also rely on prescription painkillers.
Picking the perfect painkillers
Paracetamol tends to be used for general pain, and a group of medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen in tablet or gel form, are commonly used for joint and muscle pain.
Painkillers such as codeine, co-codamol (codeine and paracetamol), dihydrocodeine or morphine sulphate are known as opiate-based painkillers. Used for moderate to severe pain, some of these are available to buy at pharmacies, whilst others require prescriptions.
In the case of joint problems involving the neck, shoulder or back, doctors sometimes prescribe nerve painkillers, such as amitriptyline or gabapentin.
About 27 million packs of over-the-counter products containing codeine are sold in the UK each year, suggests the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB).
Add that to the nearly 65 million prescriptions for painkillers which were dispensed in England in 2012, according to figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), and that’s a lot of pills being taken.
The truth about painkillers
Over-the-counter medications may seem harmless, but can have detrimental effects. Sometimes there are unexpected interactions with other medications you’re taking, or you can have unpleasant side effects.
‘Taken in excess, paracetamol can seriously damage the liver, so is a particularly high risk medication if taken as an overdose,’ explains our expert GP, Dr Alasdair Wright.
NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal upsets, particularly if used regularly. Plus, they ‘can also affect your cardiovascular system, kidney function and blood pressure’.
Nerve painkillers may help kill pain, but leave you feeling drowsy and sedated. And in the case of opiate-based painkillers, such as codeine, they can be highly addictive. They’re really only designed for short-term use and taking them for too long reduces their painkilling ability.
What’s the alternative?
If you’re fed up with taking pills or want to try something different, there are plenty of alternatives to consider. Many can be used alongside traditional painkilling options.
- Reflexology. Reflexology is a non-evidenced based complementary therapy treatment based on the idea that there are specific reflex areas on the feet, lower legs, hands, face or ear that correspond to different parts of the body. By working on these points using gentle pressure, both symptoms and causes can be helped. Dr Carol Samuel, a trained reflexologist and researcher from the University of Portsmouth, says, ‘Reflexology works by causing the brain to release chemicals that lessen pain signals. It may be used to complement conventional drug therapy in conditions associated with pain, such as osteoarthritis and backache.’
- Natural supplements. Some natural supplements work as alternatives to NSAIDs. One notable example is omega-3 fatty acids or fish oils. Research has shown they can ease the inflammation and pain caused by a variety of conditions, such as arthritis, and are safer to take than NSAIDs.
- Acupuncture. Traditional acupuncture is based on the idea that ‘pain and illness are signs that the body is out of balance and that qi – or vital energy – can’t flow freely,’ say the British Acupuncture Council. Tailored individual treatment involves ultra-thin needles inserted into specific acupuncture points to get qi to flow again and trigger a natural healing response. ‘Acupuncture can be a very effective way to reduce pain levels,’ comments Dr Wright. ‘For those who do respond to treatment, the effect can be strong, but repeat visits may be required.’
- Relaxation techniques. It’s also worth bearing in mind that feeling anxious can heighten pain, but being calm can reduce it. Mindfulness meditation can help you develop a calmer state of mind, or you could try practising yoga or Pilates to help both your body and mind.
Not all injuries, aches and pains are the same, or respond to treatment in the same way. So if you’re in any doubt about the correct treatment approach for you, always seek the opinion of a medical professional.
For more information on managing pain visit our Working Body Centre and browse the various features available, such as ‘General self-help tips for pain’ and 3 treatments that make a difference. Or why not ask our online experts any specific questions you have about managing pain and they’ll respond within a couple of days.