All about non-medical pain relief


At some stage, most of us will have used a heat pack on a stiff back, or an ice pack on a bump. These are just two options among a variety of non-medical pain treatments. You can use these measures either as an alternative to medical pain relief, or alongside it.

Why use non-medical treatments?

Sometimes, your personal circumstances dictate whether non-medical pain treatments are the best option.

For example, pregnant women should not take any medicines without consulting a medical professional first. If you're pregnant and in pain, speak to your pharmacist or Doctor about treatment options. If the pain is severe or persistent, you should contact your Doctor or midwife immediately.

People with an allergy or sensitivity to certain painkillers, meanwhile, are also more likely to rely on non-medical pain relief.

In many cases however, it’s the intensity of your pain that determines if non-medical pain relief is more appropriate.

Cold running water might be enough to soothe your minor oven burn but isn't enough alone to see off the pain from more serious burns. And while a neck massage might help a tension headache, it’s unlikely to cure the acute pain of a migraine.

Understanding the type of pain you're experiencing is also important when it comes to getting the greatest benefit from non-medical pain relief. This is especially true for cold and heat treatments.

Hot or cold compresses?

Strains and sprains – usually indicated by sharp pain – should be treated in the first instance with an ice pack, or gel-filled cold compress. This reduces blood supply to the area, which, in turn, calms inflammation and swelling. Cold compresses should be left on for no longer than 20 minutes at a time, to avoid the risk of damaging your soft tissue.

For muscle stiffness or soreness, heat therapy is the way to go. Heat increases muscle flexibility and helps heal damaged tissue, by increasing blood flow. This can be either dry (heat pads) or wet (a hot towel or bath). 

Heat treatments can also help relieve the chronic pain of arthritis. Walking aids such as frames or sticks are another way to ease the strain.

Heat can also be useful for managing period pains. A hot water bottle works for some people – wrap it in an insulating layer to avoid burning yourself.

TENS machines

TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) machines are another option for managing pains like period pain, back pain or even labour pain. They are handheld machines that deliver small pulses of electricity, which may help stimulate your body to produce more endorphins (natural painkillers) as well as potentially changing how pain signals are delivered to the brain.

Can lifestyle choices help with pain?

Typical causes of chronic pain include poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle, certain medical conditions, and serious injury. In particular, non-medical therapies can help to manage muscular or skeletal pain. These might include physiotherapy, massage and core-strengthening programmes like pilates.

Taking steps to limit everyday stress in your life might also help with pain management and prevention. Stress can make some painful conditions, such as fibromyalgia, even worse.

Healthy lifestyle choices are key to reducing stress levels. Staying active is important, as is limiting your alcohol consumption, which may help promote healthy sleep. Many people find relaxation techniques such an meditation are helpful too. Consult your pharmacist for more information.

As with any pain, if it is persistent, or severe, and does not respond to the pain-relief measures that you have taken, then visit your Doctor.

If you are experiencing chest pains, you should call an ambulance immediately.

Next steps

• Consider ice packs for strains and sprains, and cool running water for burns

• Consider heat treatments for muscle soreness and stiffness

• Consult your pharmacist for advice on treatment options, but visit your Doctor if your symptoms are severe or do not resolve