Chronic Pain Management: Options and Alternatives


Chronic pain is defined as pain persisting over a long period of time and often resistant to medical treatment. It is very different from acute pain, which arises suddenly from a specific injury, is temporary, and is usually treatable.

Generally, short-term use of opioid medications for the treatment of acute pain poses fewer risks than ongoing use of opioids for the treatment of chronic pain. When they are prescribed for chronic pain over long periods, they can become less effective as time goes on and the risks may begin to outweigh the benefits.

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to opioid pain medications, and many people with chronic pain find that one or more of these treatments in combination works for them. 

  • Non-opioid Medications: Several non-opioid prescription medications can provide effective relief and are safe to take on a long-term basis. The medication that works best can depend on both the type of pain and how an individual responds. People often work with their doctor to identify which medication options works best for them.
  • Topicals: Topical remedies include over-the-counter and prescription creams, salves, or gels applied directly to the painful area. Some formulas contain steroids, numbing agents, or natural soothing ingredients. Heat and cold applied topically can also bring relief.
  • Stimulation: Several types of stimulation are effective for pain relief. For example, certain stimulation devices can be worn throughout the day, while other types of stimulation are administered at a doctor’s office or pain clinic. Acupuncture also works by stimulating areas affected by pain.
  • Massage, Exercise, Physical Therapy: These activities are often highly effective when combined with other treatments to become a part of an individual’s pain management routine.
  • Counseling: Certain counseling techniques directed at reducing stress are helpful to modify behavior and learn relaxation responses to pain. Sometimes these approaches are combined with biofeedback or meditation.
  • Pain Blocks or Pumps: In some cases, injections or surgery can help chronic pain, although there are risks involved. Neurosurgeons specializing in these treatments may try to block the pain or install a small device that directly delivers stimulation or medication.

Depending on a person's condition, becoming completely pain-free may be an unrealistic expectation. However, managing the level of pain so it does not interfere with normal activities or general well-being is possible. The more involved people are in working with their health care providers to develop a treatment approach that works for them, the happier they usually are with the results.

These materials are intended for educational purposes only. The information provided is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or condition, nor is it intended to substitute for clinical or medical care. Decisions about treatment of medical and behavioral health conditions and the use of medications are the sole responsibility of the patient, treatment providers, treating physician and other qualified healthcare professionals. Not all treatment options presented are appropriate for all patients or conditions. Talk with your physician about the course of treatment that is best for you.

This program was developed in conjunction with the Job-Site Safety Institute and Advocates for Human Potential.

Fact Sheet: Talking to Your Doctor About Pain Management
Fact Sheet: Alternatives to Opioids for Chronic Pain