Managing musculoskeletal pain without painkillers

Everyone has different pain tolerance levels, but if you're experiencing mild musculoskeletal pain, try practicing these natural techniques to improve how your body copes, without using painkillers.

Many of us reach for the painkillers as soon as we feel pain creeping in. While medication is an effective way of reducing mild pain, taking too many painkillers in the long term can cause further complications, such as increased tolerance levels and liver damage. Luckily there are more natural ways you can manage mild musculoskeletal pain, which can affect the joints, bones, muscles and tendons.

Increase your low-impact exercise

A common misconception when experiencing musculoskeletal pain is to think you should move as little as possible, but exercise has been shown to improve pain and psychological wellbeing.

In almost all circumstances some form of exercise is appropriate and will help reduce pain, improve tissue healing and support recovery.

Try low-impact and low-intensity cardiovascular exercise such as swimming or walking to get you started. If walking is difficult, you could try a cross-trainer machine, which will relieve the impact from the movement.

Low impact classes such as yoga or Pilates will help to build strength, but if you're taking part in classes or personal training, let your instructor know about your pain so they can help tailor the session for you.

Generally speaking, faster or higher impact exercise that aggravates pain or symptoms should be avoided, at least in the short term. And if pain worsens with exercise, modify the type or intensity accordingly.

Reduce stress levels with relaxation techniques

Experiencing pain itself can cause added stress, but learning how to relax and decrease stress levels is proven to help reduce pain.

When you're stressed you clench up and tense your body, which puts pressure on the nerves around the source of the pain and makes it even more painful. It can become a frustrating cycle, as the added stress brings more pain which in turns brings more stress.

Practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises can be helpful. Take slow, deep breaths and try to relax your muscles. If you're feeling overwhelmed with stress, talk it through with someone who can help, such as family, friends or your GP.

Nuffield Health Joint Pain Programme

The free Nuffield Health Joint Pain Programme is a great way to learn more about chronic joint pain and how to manage your condition without using painkillers.

The 6-month programme is completely free and has you working alongside a professional recovery specialist.

The best part about the programme? It really works. We’ve helped thousands of people find relief from joint pain and get a better understanding of how to move towards a better, more independent life.

Adapt your diet to reduce inflammation

Making small changes to your diet can make a big difference to pain levels. Certain foods can reduce inflammation, help to maintain a healthy immune system and build stronger bones to support joints, whereas others can actually cause inflammation and acute joint pain.

Ingredients containing anti-inflammatories include ginger, turmeric, garlic, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, fish, oils and seeds.

Increasing the level of vitamin C and calcium in your diet can strengthen your bones. Vitamin C helps to restore collagen, which is the main component of bones, while calcium helps to strengthen bones by firming their structure. If you're avoiding dairy, try adding kale, chia seeds, spinach and almonds to your diet as these contain high sources of calcium.

Other foods should be avoided. Wheat, dairy, sugar and caffeine all have inflammatory properties. Cow's milk also contains fats that can promote inflammation. Substituting these foods for alternatives could help improve your symptoms.

Consult a physiotherapist

Musculoskeletal physiotherapy is proven to improve conditions including back, joint and muscular pain. When a physio assesses you, they will attempt to identify the main factors driving your symptoms and come up with a strategy to help you manage these factors more effectively.

They will guide you through the initial stages of your rehabilitation in order to maximise your recovery while minimising the risk of aggravating your symptoms.

Remember, don't ignore unexplained pain and have it checked out by a physiotherapist or your GP.

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Last updated Thursday 10 August 2023

First published on Tuesday 2 October 2018