Alternative Methods for Pain Management

By Maureen Acquino and Lauren Kiefert | Posted on May 6, 2020

Alternative Methods to Pain Management blog 410

Nobody wants to be in pain, and as humans, we want that feeling of instant relief. Naturally, we seek out the fastest, strongest cure. For decades, opioids have been that “magic bullet” for many – offering a quick solution to the pain. However, as we’ve learned over the years, opioid use does not come without consequences.

Opioids work by blocking pain receptors throughout the body. They can also cause feelings of calmness and relaxation. While benefits of opioid use exist, those that use these medications to manage long-term chronic pain are at high risk for health conditions and addiction. The United States experienced an increase in opioid prescribing beginning in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve also seen a corresponding rise in the number of opioid overdoses and deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that between 1999 and 2018, more than 230,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses involving prescription opioids.

There is a clear connection between the length of opioid use, the dosage of the opioid and the risk of developing opioid use disorder (OUD). As the length and dosage increase, so does the risk of OUD. As a result, the overall prescribing rate has declined since 2012. Unfortunately, the dosage/strength of prescriptions is still roughly three times higher than it was in 1999, with some areas in the U.S. impacted disproportionately by opioid use disorder.

Keeping in mind the risks associated with prolonged opioid use, it’s important to understand the various ways of managing pain. Consulting with your doctor is key when finding a way to manage your pain, but below are a few additional treatment options studied by medical professionals:

Mind-body techniques

These techniques, which include meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, and gentle movements like yoga and tai chi, help you restore a sense of control over your body and turn down the "fight-or-flight" response, which can worsen chronic pain.


This practice involves the insertion of extremely fine needles into the skin at specific points. It is believed to help relieve pain by releasing endorphins — the body's natural pain-killing chemicals — and by impacting part of the brain that governs serotonin, a brain chemical involved with mood.


It’s commonly believed that pain processing (your response to pain) happens in your brain, not at the source of the pain. Different types of therapy can help to manage pain, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps to train the brain to swap negative thought patterns for more optimistic and realistic thought patterns.
  • Occupational therapy can help safely navigate and relearn daily routines and regain function and control after an incident resulting in pain.
  • Physical therapy treats pain through movement, hands-on care and patient education. Physical therapy can also result in more physical activity — reducing risk for other chronic illnesses.
  • Aquatic therapy is similar to physical therapy but takes place in water. The natural buoyance of water reduces stress on the body and helps patients perform exercises easier and with less pain. It also works to lessen joint and soft tissue swelling and provides enough resistance to strengthen muscle.
  • Aromatherapy. Some studies suggest that stimulation through smelling or receiving a massage with essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus, or ginger can result in an immediate reduction in pain, as well as changing factors such as pulse, blood pressure, skin temperature, and brain activity.

Anti-inflammatory medication

Some over the counter medications, like acetaminophen, naproxen or ibuprofen, can help alleviate pain. For conditions like nerve pain or muscle spasms, injections and nerve blocks can also help. While it is not recommended that these drugs be taken long term, they can offer short-term relief while you and your doctor come up with a plan to manage your chronic pain.

Non- or minimally-invasive procedures

When other treatments aren’t effective, surgery may be an option to help correct abnormalities in your body that may be responsible for pain. As always, it is best to discuss your options with your doctor.

How can parks and recreation help?

Park and recreation professionals can play a role in this space by offering or promoting some of the alternative treatment options mentioned above at the agencies in which they serve. Consider scheduling mindfulness, yoga or aquatic therapy classes for your community members. Or, you can allow space to be used for treatments such as acupuncture, massage or therapy. Some of these treatment options are not realistic or safe to be offered as a class or take place in parks, like low-risk surgical procedures or anti-inflammatory injections. For these alternative pain management options, consider providing education, materials and referrals to trusted providers in the community that can safely offer these services.

Advocating for yourself and your options is essential for receiving pain management that works for you. There’s no one size fits all treatment, but understanding the risks and benefits associated with each type of treatment can result in a safe, healthy road to recovery.

This concludes our Substance Use in Parks and Recreation blog series. Over the past few months, NRPA has focused on various challenges – as well as potential solutions - regarding parks and recreation and the ongoing substance use crisis. Topics have varied, ranging from the opioid reversal drug naloxone to mental health and associated stigmas. We hope these posts are informative and spark conversations and ideas regarding how your agency can play a role in the substance use epidemic. Remember – we can’t do nothing!

NRPA is also excited to announce the release of the Substance Misuse Community of Practice Summary Report in June 2020. This report highlights key takeaways from the year-long Community of Practice and includes best practices and recommendations based on these learnings. Five park and recreation agencies also share their experience with responding to substance use on park grounds and in their communities.

Past articles in the Substance Use in Parks and Recreation blog series:

Maureen Acquino is a Program Manager at NRPA. Lauren Kiefert is a Program Specialist at NRPA.