Opioids are the center of attention as the addiction epidemic grips the United States. Lawsuits have been opened against pharmaceutical companies, criminal organizations continue to flood the country with heroin, and more than 42,000 people were killed by opioid overdoses.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, around two million people struggle with substance use disorders that are related to prescription opioid abuse. Prescription opioids are used to treat pain for a variety of reasons, including surgery recovery, chronic pain, and injuries.

For the most part, the majority of people that use opioids as directed never become addicted. However, opioids are prescribed in excess to help avoid you running out before you’re ready.

The problem is that the extra pills are left in medicine cabinets to be found by others or given out to friends and family. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that prescription opioid abuse is a significant risk factor for later heroin addiction. Nearly 80 percent of people who use heroin started with prescription opioids.

However, opioids are effective medications when it comes to treating moderate to severe pain. What happens when someone in recovery has chronic pain or needs to have surgery?

Unfortunately, researchers are still looking for an ideal alternative to opioids that isn’t as addictive. There are a few options people in recovery can use to manage pain symptoms when they don’t feel comfortable taking an opioid.

Learn more about some opioid alternatives:

Non-Opioid Pain Medications

Though opioids are extremely effective when it comes to treating pain, they aren’t the only medications that doctors can use to treat pain. Opioids treat pain by disrupting pain signals that are on their way to the brain. However, other medications can treat pain through other methods like targeting inflammation, spasms, stress, or other pain sources in the body. Here are some of the medications that are used to treat pain symptoms:


Anti-inflammatory medications are the most common type of over-the-counter pain relievers in the United States, but they can also be used in prescription-strength medications. Inflammation is a process that’s commonly associated with pain, but it’s also part of your body’s way of protecting itself from injury and illness.

Woman experiencing chronic pain

When you are injured, your body releases white blood cells, immune cells, and cytokines which help fight infection, but they can also cause swelling. Swelling can cause nerves to be irritated, leading to pain and discomfort. Lifestyle and diet can also cause uncomfortable inflammation. Plus, diseases like arthritis can cause acute localized inflammation that’s very painful.

NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are what you’re taking whenever you take Advil or Tylenol. But steroids and corticosteroids are commonly used prescription pain relievers. They can be used to treat pain from autoimmune diseases, joint inflammation, and a variety of other diseases.


Some pain is caused by diseases and disorders that can cause convulsions, spasms, and seizures which leave you with soreness throughout your body. Some neuropathic issues can cause pain through overstimulation. Anticonvulsants are used to slow down the central nervous system and to help dull nerve pain and help you relax. Unfortunately, some anticonvulsants like barbiturates can also be addictive.


Cannabis is still being investigated for its potential medical uses but one area it may have some application is in pain-management. Marijuana has shown to have some promise in treating pain, even pain that has otherwise been difficult to treat. It has also shown some potential applications in treating some autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. However, NIDA reports that there isn’t enough evidence to prove that medical marijuana’s benefits outweigh the risks.

Physical Therapy

In some cases, chronic pain can be caused by weakened or stiff muscles and joints. Physical therapy can help ease some pain by helping you to regain, preserve, or improve strength and mobility. Physical therapy can help improve your quality of life by helping you to regain certain mobility that gives you more independence. Occupational therapy is a specific type of physical therapy that’s focused on helping you strengthen your ability to accomplish daily tasks.


When you are experiencing pain symptoms, heading to the gym may be the last thing on your mind. However, you might be on what is called the vicious cycle of pain. As you age, you may experience natural musculoskeletal deterioration and changes in your circadian rhythm that cause pain. This can cause you to become more fatigued and less mobile. However, exercise can break up this cycle by helping build or maintain the strength that helps to ease pain. Exercise can also promote healthy sleep, which also promotes healing and can improve pain symptoms.


Your diet can have a big impact on your overall feeling of health and well-being. Eating the right amount of calories can help you get enough energy while maintaining a healthy weight. Eating too much or too little can cause a vast range of pain-causing problems. Plus, certain foods like foods that are high in sugar can cause inflammation which leads to pain symptoms. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help you fight swelling and inflammation that causes pain.

Cold and Heat

If you have pain that is localized to one or two areas of your body, it can help to apply cold and heat to the area. It’s a common remedy that helps athletes recover from injuries and tough workouts, but it turns out that there is some science behind this age-old practice. Cold and hot compresses are able to reduce swelling and relax sore joints and muscles. Blood flows away from cold, which can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Heat actually stimulates nerves and pain receptors in a way that may cause a release of endorphins, your body’s natural opioid. A warm shower followed by a cold compress for 15 minutes can help reduce pain symptoms, especially in specific areas.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a common psychotherapy that’s used in addiction treatment and in treating many other psychological and behavioral problems. Though it focuses on improving mental health issues, it can also help you learn to deal with stress and depression, which can cause physical pain symptoms.

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