PT-Recommended Ways to Relieve Musculoskeletal Pain Without Medicine

There are many ways to feel better without pain meds. Learn more about how to ease any discomfort you’re feeling with important lifestyle changes.

Published Date: Mar 19, 2024
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How often do you reach for a pain reliever when you feel an ache or an ouch? If the answer is regularly, you’re hardly alone. Many people think of over-the-counter pain medications as the first line of defense for any pain, whether it’s acute or chronic. But you can actually relieve pain without medicine if you focus on treating the root causes. 

“Pain is rarely caused by one singular problem,” says Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. While tissue damage and structural changes play some role, what makes pain complicated is that how you experience it varies based on a combination of biopsychosocial factors, including your genetics, emotions, beliefs, lifestyle habits, stress level, social connections, and overall physical and mental well-being. These factors, with the exception of your genetics, can change over time which, in turn, means your pain response won’t always be the same, says Dr. Vinci.

This is why relying on pain medication has its limits — it’s typically a short-term, feel-better remedy, not a long-term, get-better strategy. Pain meds can’t address the underlying problem or alter your pain sensitivity. And because pain is multifactorial, properly managing it may mean tackling it from numerous angles. That’s where non-drug strategies, including physical and exercise therapy and lifestyle changes, come in.

Read on to learn more about how to relieve pain without medicine, especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Vinci is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in orthopedics, persistent pain, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

The Importance of a Comprehensive Approach to Pain Relief: A Hinge Health Perspective

Pain is a physiological response that’s designed to alert you to damage or danger, but oftentimes the discomfort persists long after the initial issue has resolved. You might have pain months after a pulled muscle or broken bone has healed or years after a car accident, for instance. Or you might have pain for no clear reason at all. In these instances, the problem often is less about one specific thing that happened to cause your pain, and more about the many different factors that are contributing to your body’s pain response.

Make no mistake: Any pain you feel is absolutely real, and it’s certainly not “all in your head.” But lifestyle changes can retrain an overly-sensitive nervous system so you become more comfortable and, most importantly, have the motivation and ability to live the life you want.

Whatever is prompting your pain, a multi-pronged treatment approach typically works best. “Pain medication may be one tool in your toolbox, and you can decide when and if it’s needed, such as during a flare,” says Dr. Vinci. In some cases, pain medication can be helpful because it can ease pain enough to enable you to do other activities, like exercise, that will help you feel better in the long run.

At Hinge Health, we believe that movement alongside other lifestyle strategies, like getting quality sleep and reducing stress, all play a role in managing your body’s pain response. 

Non-Medication Therapies for Pain Relief

Although medications may provide some short-term relief, the following methods are more apt to yield lasting results, especially when several of these strategies are combined. “Not only will they help to reduce pain, but they will have a positive impact on your overall health and well-being,” says Dr. Vinci.

  • Regular Exercise. Moving when you’re in pain might seem unappealing, but the truth is that motion is lotion and often helps you feel better, not worse. Exercise brings blood flow and nutrients to the affected area. While you may be familiar with the R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) approach to pain relief, there’s a more updated treatment strategy — P.E.A.C.E. and L.O.V.E. — that prioritizes gentle movement and activity modifications for soft-tissue injuries.

  • Physical Therapy. A physical therapist (PT) can help you get moving with confidence and can recommend exercises tailored specifically to your pain. “We can suggest targeted stretches and other moves that promote strength, mobility, and flexibility,” says Dr. Vinci. “A physical therapist can also help you find the right ‘dose’ of exercise,” she adds. “If you’re unsure about whether a particular move will increase your pain or aren’t sure when to push through versus when to back off, we can guide you.” You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Good-Quality Sleep. Skimping on sleep taxes your immune and nervous systems, so you’re more apt to feel a higher level of pain, says Dr. Vinci. Plus research suggests that people who sleep poorly may be more likely to develop chronic pain in the first place. What’s more, without adequate rest, you won’t have the energy to exercise. Creating a wind-down routine and going to bed at roughly the same time most nights can help set you up for better, deeper sleep.

  • A Healthy Diet. “Nutrition can have a big impact on overall health as well as pain sensitivity,” says Dr. Vinci. Some research suggests that loading up on foods that are rich in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds might help, but you may wish to talk to a registered dietician for custom guidance. That said, almost everyone can benefit from eating more whole foods (especially fruits and vegetables) and fewer processed ones, says Dr. Vinci. Limiting added sugars — including those in desserts as well as sweet coffee concoctions and other beverages — may also help dampen inflammation.

  • Stress Management. Perhaps not surprisingly, chronic pain and chronic stress go hand in hand. Imaging tests have shown that the brain’s response to pain and stress are often similar. Stress may cause muscles to tense or spasm, and it contributes to inflammation by causing a spike in the hormone cortisol. Everyone has some stress, but finding healthy ways to let off steam is key. Exercise, spending time with friends, journaling, massage, and meditation can all help you relax. 

Other Non-Drug Ways to Minimize Pain. There are additional approaches to pain management that may require you to take a closer look at your current lifestyle habits as well as the type of pain you’re experiencing, says Dr. Vinci. For instance, if you’re a smoker, it’s important to seek out resources to help you scale back or quit because smoking is pro-inflammatory and can often make certain types of pain worse. For others, assistive devices like braces and orthotics may be helpful in managing pain. The same can be true for using hot or cold therapy to relieve muscle tension. A physical therapist can make additional recommendations that are tailored to your unique situation.

When to See A Doctor

If you’re struggling to improve or control your acute or chronic pain, or you have questions or concerns about the pain you are feeling, it can be helpful to seek out a clinician’s guidance, says Dr. Vinci.

PT Tip: Pick a Priority

Lifestyle changes can be very effective for managing chronic pain, but embracing new, healthy habits isn’t always easy. To set yourself up for success, don’t try to tackle everything at once. “Pick one thing to prioritize, such as going to bed earlier, and start working on that first,” says Dr. Vinci. “Give yourself a few weeks to adapt to the new habit before tackling the next change on your list, maybe nutrition or exercise. You want to make your goals reasonable and achievable. You need a marathon mindset when it comes to making lifestyle changes that stick.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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