Holistic Alternatives to Opioids

No one should have to live in constant pain

opiodsEvery second, millions of people suffer debilitating pain, and for some it’s an ongoing fact of life. Well-intentioned doctors write prescriptions for painkillers, but an alarming number of patients (including, allegedly, music legend Prince) end up with life-ruining addiction or overdose. As Pres. Obama noted in March, more people die every year from opioid overdose than traffic accidents.

Opioids are highly addictive drugs that include prescription painkillers, such as codeine and morphine, and illegal narcotics such as heroin.

The Centers for Disease Control has issued national guidelines for prescription painkillers that include prescribing ibuprofen or acetaminophen where appropriate, but these also can have disturbing side effects.

Moreover, opioids interrupt the body’s built-in pain management by inhibiting feel-good beta-endorphins. And according to a study with post-operative patients, over time, opioids may actually prolong and increase pain.

Fortunately there are a number of safe alternatives.


In 2012, after a study that included 17,922 patients with back and neck pain, osteoarthritis or chronic headaches, the American Medical Association found that, “Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option.”

More recently, in September 2015 researchers with Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University found repeated acupuncture treatment lowers or eliminates the need for opiates by balancing key brain regions, and altering pain-related attention and memory.

Acupuncture is mostly painless, especially with repeat treatments, and surprisingly relaxing. Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep.

Medical marijuana

Researchers from the University of Michigan found that patients who use medical pot decreased their opioid meds by 64 percent. However, it tends to work better for moderate pain than for severe chronic conditions.

Mindfulness meditation

A study published in Journal of Neuroscience found that mindfulness meditation can slightly lower pain. In this mind-body approach, patients learn to focus on breathing while blocking out external sensations and subsequent negative thoughts. Brain imaging studies suggest mindful meditation achieves its pain-relieving effect without engaging the opioid receptors in the brain. Progressive relaxation and biofeedback can also be helpful.

Spinal manipulation 

Chiropractic may help people with back issues, chronic tension or cervicogenic (neck-related) headaches, as well as prevent migraines.


Exercise is always important and releases natural opiates, such as endorphins and other chemicals. The positive effects begin during exertion and usually last a while. T’ai chi is gentle, as are certain forms of yoga, such as Iyengar and Restorative.

Back pain

A 2006 review found that devil’s claw, willow bark (taken orally) and capsaicin (applied to skin, may burn at first) help relieve low-back pain.


Glucosamine, chondroitin, DMSO, MSM and SAMe may help osteoarthritis, while omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and gamma linolenic acid (GLA) may relieve symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis. Turmeric, ginger and Boswellia serrate (Indian frankincense) are also useful.


Preliminary studies suggest riboflavin, coenzyme Q10, and the herbs butterbur and feverfew help migraine sufferers.

Used alone or in conjunction with lower-dose opiates, natural pain relief options improve quality of life and have few or no side effects. Most importantly, they’re non-addictive.

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