As a senior adult, you have a better-than-even chance of experiencing frequent physical pain. And if you have frequent (or chronic) pain, you know it can make daily tasks more difficult and some activities nearly impossible. Many rely on pain medications for chronic pain management, but even those can have downsides and negative side effects.

Chronic pain can affect your desire to socialize with others, which can lead to depression and anxiety. It can be physically, emotionally, and financially draining as well. So, why should you consider drug-free forms of chronic pain management?

The Downside of Pain Medications

For most of us, pain medications can be effective. For seniors, some pain medications have their drawbacks. Some of the most common pain medications are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen, Advil, or Motrin, which are generally effective for mild to moderate pain. However, they can cause stomach pain, stomach bleeding or ulcers, and pose additional risks for seniors with renal issues. NSAIDs may also interfere with medications for blood disorders and heart problems, and interact poorly with other medications.

Opioids like morphine, oxycodone, or fentanyl are prescribed for more severe pain, but they can become extremely addictive and result in side effects including constipation, nausea, gastrointestinal complications, respiratory problems, increased fall risk and sleep problems.

As many seniors take medications for one or more chronic diseases, the possibility of dangerous drug interactions with any pain medications increases.

So, what are some other ways seniors might manage chronic pain without drugs?

Drug-Free Alternatives


The insertion of extremely fine needles into the skin has been used in the U.S. for years to treat many conditions and relieve pain, particularly back and nerve pain, as well as headaches, neck pain, and fibromyalgia.

Patients have reported improvements in pain management after receiving acupuncture treatments for chronic pain. Some believe that pain improvement can be a result of the patient’s belief in the acupuncture treatment (placebo effect), but its benefits cannot solely be attributed to this, and it is generally considered a valid pain treatment.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic is a therapy system focused on the structure of the body, particularly the manipulation of the spine, and has been proven to be effective in pain relief. Treatment can also include posture education, exercise education, and ergonomic training (how to walk, sit, and stand to limit back strain).

Chiropractors often work with primary care physicians, pain experts, and surgeons to treat patients. Among the alternatives to pain medications, the American College of Physicians recommends treating moderate low back pain with spinal manipulation and massage as well as acupuncture.

Medicare Part B covers some of the costs associated with manual manipulation of the spine. Learn what is and is not covered at


Pain is physical, emotional and psychological. Due to this connection between mind and body, hypnosis has continued to gain acceptance as an appropriate treatment for chronic pain.

Hypnosis involves relaxing the body and focusing the mind with suggestions that produce feelings of comfort. Hypnosis in the treatment of chronic pain also often involves teaching the patient self-hypnosis, or providing the patient with tape recordings of sessions that can be used to reduce pain on a daily basis.

The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis recommends working with a healthcare professional who is properly trained and has the proper credentials, including graduate training. Some insurances will partially reimburse individuals for hypnosis therapy if it is administered by a licensed professional.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness

The psychological connection to pain provides another venue for pain relief. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is used for many different health issues, is also used in pain treatment. CBT instructs patients about pain and how it is produced in the nervous system. The aim is to teach a cognitive-based skill set like breathing exercises to relax in the presence of pain, and how to achieve a different perspective in response to the pain. Patients are taught to shift their focus away from pain, and how to develop healthy lifestyle changes that can help regulate the nervous system.

Mindfulness is defined in CBT as having an increased awareness of the present moment. It uses breathing techniques, guided imagery (imagining yourself in a calming place) and other practices to relax the mind and body.

Daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic pain because pain can cause negative or worrisome thoughts that in turn increase the person’s perception of their pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body and being attuned to the breathing and body sensations can help manage pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.

There has been extensive research on the effectiveness of mindfulness as a tool for chronic pain management. According to the Mayo Clinic: “There is increasing evidence that regular mindfulness practice reduces a person’s pain experience.”

Functional Restoration Programs

For chronic pain sufferers, there is a team approach to pain management through Functional Restoration Programs (FRP).

FRPs include physicians and nurses specializing in pain management; and physical therapists to improve body movement, teach stretching, and body awareness and provide further education. Occupational therapists help patients improve everyday function, and psychologists assist with stress management and teach coping skills.

Take a look at our Health & Wellness blog for more health tips.

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