7 Safe Alternatives to Opiates for Those in Recovery

By Gordon Dickler- CAC, ICADC

Opiate painkillers are by far the most prescribed medications in the United States today. According to the recent U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, over 289 million prescriptions are written each year for analgesic pain relievers. And this is just the beginning. Recent studies show that despite making up only five percent of the world’s population, the United States now consumes about 80 percent of the world’s opioid pain medication.

The opiate epidemic is clear, especially as prescription drug addictions continue to lead users into heroin abuse and fatal overdoses. Fortunately, however, more and more people have begun to recognize the dangers associated with prescription drugs. Many, including those in recovery, are now actively looking for alternative pain relieving methods – methods that do not involve highly addictive drugs.

While opiates are undoubtedly effective at relieving pain, these drugs can also stir severe consequences when used repeatedly. A physical addiction, for example, can develop within just four weeks of prescription painkiller use. A psychological dependence to opiates, on the other hand, can develop in as little as two days. And this is just the beginning. Repeated opiate use can lead to chronic respiratory issues, depression, as well as damage to the immune system.

If you are working towards recovery, have addictive tendencies, or simply desire safer pain treatments, know that there are alternatives available that will not disrupt your balanced, substance-free life. Some of these safer options will come in the form of behavioral therapies. Some can be purchased right over-the-counter. Some may already be in your own home. Here are a few of the alternatives to opiates that Turnbridge* recommends for those who are living sober:

Natural Pain Remedies:

  • Massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care – Alternative therapies focused on the body, such as acupuncture, acupressure, and spinal manipulation, are safe and natural mechanisms for coping with pain. Not only are these methods used to ease pain, they also have been known to release dopamine-stimulating endorphins and improve body function.
  • Exercise – Exercise is always recommended, yes, but it is particularly important for those who experience chronic pain. Studies show that mild, low-impact exercise can greatly improve functionality and mobility in a person. And, exercises such as yoga have proved to relieve chronic back pain, joint pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other related conditions. If you are not likely to exercise on your own, you may consider scheduling physical therapy sessions for ongoing pain management.
  • Mindfulness and meditation – Meditation, not medication. Mindfulness (a meditational practice that focuses on self-acceptance) is an effective alternative to traditional painkilling drugs. This approach helps individuals spend less time thinking or worrying about their pain, and more time accepting the pain in efforts to reduce its intensity. Don’t believe it? A recent study of adults with chronic back pain revealed that, over the course of 26 weeks, mindfulness treatments actually resulted in great improvements in back pain and functionality. (To learn more about Mindfulness and how to apply the practice, please see this SMART Recovery blog post on the topic.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Chronic pain can bring about emotional as well as physical tolls on the mind and body. You may know this firsthand, how relentless and extreme the pain can be, how hopeless it can make you feel. This is normal, and is exactly what CBT aims to address. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective, psychological treatment alternative that alleviates the dysfunctional thoughts and attitudes so often associated with chronic pain, like depression. CBT teaches coping mechanisms for pain management by helping individuals recognize symptoms, control their perceptions of pain, put their focuses elsewhere, and develop strategies to adapt and conquer any negative feelings.

    Alternative Medications:

  • Over-the-Counter Acetaminophen – Officially recommended as a first-line treatment by the American College of Rheumatology, acetaminophen is an over-the-counter pill that is most commonly recognized in its branded form, Tylenol. Despite popular belief, this OTC medicine is truly effective in treating pain. A recent study from the Journal of the American Dental Association revealed that 325mg of acetaminophen taken with 200mg of ibuprofen actually provided better pain relief than oral opioid drugs for patients who had tooth extractions.
  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) – Typically more potent than acetaminophen, NSAIDs are over-the-counter medications that relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and lower fevers. Ibuprofen and aspirin are of the most commonly recognized types of NSAIDs. While greatly effective in treating pain, use of these drugs should be taken with caution. Regular use of NSAIDs, particularly among older patients, can prevent blood clotting and increase the risk of ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, and cardiovascular issues.
  • Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors – In other words, anti-depressants. Even if you are not struggling with a depressive disorder, anti-depressants can be taken as first-line treatments for nerve pain as well as muscular and skeletal pain.

Making a decision about pain treatment, especially for those in recovery, is undeniably difficult. Drug addiction now affects more Americans than cancer. All the while, chronic pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.

Current pharmaceutical practice is, “Prescribe an opioid, make it better.” But with over 20 million Americans struggling with addition, this mindset is no longer relevant. Striking a balance between effective pain management and drug prevention will be key to overcoming these long-standing epidemics. Alternatives to opiate drugs will be key to the health and well-being of those walking the road to recovery – especially the adolescents and young adults who are particularly susceptible to substance addiction. Together, we can start making healthier choices regarding drug use.

To attend a SMART Recovery meeting for help with an addiction to opiates or other substances or behaviors, you can find the schedule of meetings most helpful to you on our website.

*About the author: Gordon Dickler – CAC, ICADC. Gordon is the Director of Admissions at Turnbridge, a young adult drug treatment center located in New Haven, Connecticut. Here, his chief role is to help families in crisis find hope and help for their loved ones in need. As both a Turnbridge graduate and a board-certified substance abuse counselor, Gordon has an intimate understanding of Turnbridge’s powerful ability to help young men and women overcome addiction and mental health disorders. This unique perspective allows him to relate deeply to clients and families struggling with addiction, and to explain at a foundational level the many aspects of Turnbridge’s Preparative Care Program.




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