With all of the deserved hubbub over opioids in the media lately, the world has started looking for less addictive, yet still effective alternatives to narcotics. I’m going to share some of my favorite natural opioid alternatives today.
Before we get any farther, let me say that I believe that opioids and opiates have a place in healthcare. They serve a necessary role, and for some people (like me) are critical to maintaining a minimal quality of life. I have a rare disease called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and the pain that comes with it is rated as one of the most painful conditions on earth. However, I also believe they are overprescribed and should be a last-ditch attempt rather than a first-line treatment for mild to moderate injuries.
I’m always looking for something that will help with day to day aches and pains or mild injuries from exercise, and these are some of my favorite natural opioid alternatives.
Twisted your ankle? Have a mild strain in your back? Before you reach for the hydrocode you got for that toothache last year, try anti-inflammatories and alternating heat and ice. Ice will decrease swelling and inflammation and heat will relax tight muscles. It’s easy to forget that some of the simplest treatments might be the best.
Muscle rubs and anti-inflammatory gels such as Max-Freeze or Icy Hot use both medicinal and herbal ingredients to help reduce pain. These are great for a twinging back that’s keeping you up or muscles that are giving you grief after your long training runs.
Common in homeopathy (which doesn’t actually work), arnica is a natural anti-inflammatory with some research indicating its effectiveness when applied topically. If your pain is mild to moderate, this ingredient in your muscle rub may just be the key to easing your pain.
Capsaicin is the hot in Icy Hot. Some integrative medicine doctors even prescribe this to be taken orally to help reduce pain caused by inflammation.
Turmeric is such a great anti-inflammatory, and I might be a little bit obsessed. The research behind its effectiveness on inflammatory pain is solid and curcumin (a compound found in turmeric) has been shown to be effective for nerve pain.
There has been research done that ginger supplements work better for mild to moderate menstrual cramps than certain prescription medications. My friends who think essential oils can cure anything use the oil topically as a pain reliever, but I’m not convinced. I’d grab a supplement first and see if it helps before resorting to ibuprofen or other medications.
PT is a great way to relieve pain, especially if it has become chronic or it is the result of an injury. You’ll strengthen muscles, learn how to move in new ways and work your body back into a good way of moving. They can treat everything from muscle strains to nerve pain and use the body as a tool for healing itself.
My mom will tell you I’m not a big believer in alternative therapies, and using energy meridians in acupuncture seems a little too close to made up for me. However, I have had major success with dry needling. It uses acupuncture needles, however, they are inserted into muscles where you have knots, strains or tightness. A lot of chronic pain can be traced back to muscle tightness and imbalances, so a few dry needling sessions can actually relieve both muscle pain and the secondary pain it causes.
The science is split on this one, but I’ve had good success treating tendonitis with KT Tape. The additional support and alignment changes encouraged by the tape help your body to move correctly. This can help reduce irritation and pain in muscles, tendons, and nerves. There are minimal side effects (and most of those are related to the adhesive) and few contraindications for this treatment. Pro athletes and many physical therapists swear by this stuff.
This is a favorite recommendation of my doctor and other pain management professionals. While you cannot think your way out of physical pain, you can take control of any anxiety it is giving you and you can fight back against what it is doing to your mental state. As humans, we can’t wish away pain, but we can control our response to it. By looking inward and purposefully instilling calm in your body, you can get a leg up on pain (or even enhance the efficacy of medications).
It might seem silly to exercise when you are in pain, but it works for a few reasons. First, inactivity can actually cause pain in your body. Secondly, exercising releases endorphins that increase your pain tolerance. Research at Harvard has shown that when you dance in a group, that tolerance increases even more. (So go take that Zumba class, even if you just do the basic moves). The increased circulation will help reduce inflammation in your body while the activity is a distraction from the pain. Even people like me who suffer from intense pain are told to get out there and move for these reasons.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention kratom, cannabis and other partially legal substances in this list. While I think there is promise in these products, there is still a lot of research and potential downsides. First, cannabis isn’t legal at the federal level and while you can buy it in some states for medical conditions and fewer for recreational use, it’s still technically illegal in this country. I can’t recommend that you break the law. Kratom, while legal federally as a nutritional supplement is illegal in some states and isn’t well regulated. The FDA has even issued a warning about it, so please don’t seek it out.
Opioids are an important tool in our arsenal for severe pain, but Americans have gotten used to reaching for the strong stuff for relatively minor pain. Doctors prescribe it because pain has become public enemy number one. But, there are many ways to avoid opioids for moderate pain, like the ways listed above. The best way to beat the epidemic is to try all of the opioid alternatives out there before reaching for the narcotics.
One last note, if you are in pain and lots of it, call your doctor. Make an appointment. Get it checked out. While I don’t think it is necessary to take norco for a mild headache, sometimes a natural opioid alternative isn’t going to cut it. Your doctor should listen to you and work to treat the underlying cause of your pain and help you find ways to relieve it – and most of the time you won’t need a narcotic. And for the times you do, take it responsibly and only as prescribed. And always, if you have extras, take them to a local prescription collection bin (in Chicago, Walgreens has them) to be destroyed.
NB: This is not medical advice and I am not a doctor or medical professional. Before taking any supplements or making lifestyle changes you should discuss them with your doctor or healthcare provider.
Mary Fran Wiley is a well known gluten-free and positive living blogger from Chicago where she writes Curiouser and Curiouser, maintains the Chronic Positivity Project, and has been featured in Allergic Living Magazine, Care2.com and Today.com.