You find yourself suffering pain but hesitant to take the usual painkillers your doctor or pharmacist suggests for whatever reason – perhaps the experience of side effects or fear of addiction, or you're trying to cut down on your regular pain medications. You may wonder what forms of natural, alternative or herbal pain relief are available. Our resident pharmacist will take you through alternative types of pain relief, and they will seek to dispel any myths or misinformation regarding pain medications.
This is a common misconception. People interpret the term "natural" as occurring in nature rather than developed in a lab, but it does not follow that it is always safer. Many medicines we use today are derived from naturally occurring active molecules found in nature – aspirin, for example – some molecules are identical. At the same time, some have been modified to be more effective or stable to withstand formulation (the process of turning it into tablets and capsules). Additionally, natural or herbal medicines do not always have the scientific data to back their effectiveness and safety – they are largely unknown in that sense, compared to rigorous tests for medications on the market, and they are not under the same strict regulatory rules.
The benefit may have been handed down through generations in traditional medicine or be a new "wonder product" that has gained popularity. Still, natural and herbal remedies can have side effects, cause harm in some cases, and interfere with your other prescribed medications.
It's best to only use herbal medicines in moderation and for mild self-treatable conditions. Only continue them if you see a clear benefit. Remember to mention to any healthcare practitioner what herbal medicines you take, and check if you're already prescribed medications or have ongoing medical conditions.
There are different painkillers: non-opioids, NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and opioids. Opioids such as codeine, tramadol and morphine are strong painkillers that can be physically addictive. This is because your body can rely on them to feel good and stop producing endorphins, the body's feel-good biochemicals. You can also develop a tolerance over time and need more to get the same effect. Opioid medications are usually only prescribed by a doctor to treat moderate to severe pain not controlled by other painkillers. These should be used only short term to minimize the risk of addiction. When prescribed for chronic long-term pain, it's essential to have regular medication reviews to ensure its appropriate use. Other painkillers such as paracetamol and NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) are not addictive in a physiological sense, i.e. your body is not dependent on them. Still, they may be addictive psychologically, i.e. you feel you need them to start your day. Any painkillers must be only used to treat pain and for as short-term use as possible. Any chronic pain should be treated with additional therapy, e.g. physiotherapy alongside medications, and always discuss with your health care practitioner. Drug holidays (a break from medication) can be used to identify if medicines are needed. Long-term use of NSAIDs can be associated with gastric upset and an increased risk of kidney injury. Long-term paracetamol use can affect the liver and heart.
Ginger, turmeric, valerian root, and essential oil massage (chamomile, lavender, sage) are a few natural remedies for pain relief. These are traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine (traditional Indian medicine) to treat inflammation and pain response. However, there are no set or recommended doses of herbal and natural therapies, so it is hard to know exactly how much to take. As with any medication, use caution as long as the benefit is felt.
In addition to medicines, pain management may include the following therapies: exercise, physiotherapy, massage and stretching, and acupuncture. Some research suggests increasing sunshine exposure can help with chronic pain. Meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy are mindful approaches to controlling how we perceive and respond to chronic pain. Reiki is the belief and practice of controlling energy flows in the body to heal, relax and speed recovery. Although there is limited evidence to back up this practice, it is a safe and harmless therapy that has benefited people using it.
A TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine uses tiny electrical impulses to interfere with pain signals in the body. This can be used at home with a TENS machine.
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