Self-care approaches to treating pain

When you have pain, there's nothing you want more than relief — right now. For many people, that means reaching for the bottle of pain relievers in the medicine cabinet.

Before treating pain yourself, however, you should understand where the pain is coming from. Some sources of pain are easier to decipher: You have a tension headache after a long day at your computer, or back pain after an afternoon of raking the yard or joint pain from arthritis. Other sources of pain are not as evident, especially when you're experiencing the pain for the first time (such as knee or hip pain when you are out for a walk) or when the pain lasts longer than usual (such as a stiff neck or lower back pain that doesn't subside).

In these cases, consult your health care professional to rule out or treat a possibly serious condition. For many types of acute pain, however, a number of self-care options can help. In addition to over-the-counter pain relievers, several simple lifestyle approaches can also be effective.

Over-the-counter medications

When you go to your local grocery store or box store, you'll always find a large selection of pain relievers. These medications — also called analgesics — help control pain by interfering with the way pain messages are developed, transmitted or interpreted.

Over-the-counter pain medications can be effective at relieving many types of mild to moderate pain. Some pain medications will also reduce the swelling and redness of inflammation.

  • Oral pain relievers. That bottle of pain-relieving pills in your medicine cabinet likely contains aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), or naproxen sodium (Aleve). These medications are most effective for mild to moderate pain that's accompanied by swelling and inflammation, such arthritis, sprains and strains.

    However, these types of medications can have serious side effects, including nausea, stomach pain, or even stomach bleeding and ulcers. Large doses can also lead to kidney problems and high blood pressure. These risks are higher for older people, especially those over age 75.

    Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) is another commonly used pain reliever. It's frequently recommended for mild to moderate pain that isn't accompanied by inflammation — such as for headaches, menstrual cramps, and cold and flu aches. Acetaminophen can also help relieve the pain, although not the inflammation, associated with muscle aches and osteoarthritis.

    When taken as recommended, acetaminophen has long been believed to have a low risk of side effects. Taking higher doses, however, brings an increased risk of liver or kidney damage. This risk is higher for individuals who have existing liver disease or long-term alcohol use. In fact, recent research suggests the recommended dose for long-term acetaminophen use should be lowered — from 4 to 2 grams a day — for individuals in these populations due to the risk of liver problems.

  • Topical pain relievers. Topical analgesics are creams, gels, sprays and patches that are applied to the skin at the area where you feel pain — such as on painful joints or strained muscles. Topical pain relievers such as diclofenac (Voltaren, Solaraze) and salicylates (Bengay, Icy Hot, others) can help reduce mild to moderate pain without serious side effects — in part because they are applied locally instead of being circulated through the body. They are often recommended for older people who have a greater risk of side effects from oral pain relievers.

Applying heat and cold

Sometimes relief can be a frozen bag of peas or a hot bath. This is because applying heat and cold can often help ease joint pain, back strains, neck pain and other types of pain.

Here's how these methods work:

  • Cold can numb pain by causing blood vessels to constrict, which helps reduce swelling. That's why, when you experience an injury — whether it's a bee sting or a sprained ankle — icing is often a good first choice. You can use an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables, or you can submerge the affected area in a container of ice water.
  • Heat, on the other hand, is a muscle relaxer. Heat helps loosen tense muscles, which contributes to pain relief. Heat also increases blood flow to an injury, which can help promote healing. Sources of heat can be a heating pad or a warm bath.

You may find that cold or heat provides more relief. Or you can alternate the two, ending with the cold treatment.

Unfortunately, simply applying heat or cold often doesn't completely resolve pain. It's more likely to lessen its severity and reduce inflammation. But in many cases, a heating pad or ice pack can be applied in addition to other pain treatments, such as analgesics, to increase the chances of relief.

Lifestyle approaches

An important part of treating pain is managing your overall health. Taking care of yourself — by getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, reducing stress and practicing relaxation — can help you take care of pain.

Other nonpharmaceutical pain-relieving practices that can be worked into your life include:

  • Massage. Massage — the kneading, stroking and manipulation of your body's soft tissues — can help relieve muscle tension and stress. Research suggests that massage is most useful for relieving pain in the short term; only minimal research supports its long-term effects. One study found that acupressure — specialized massage that mimics acupuncture, but without the needles — might provide more relief than traditional massage.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Resembling a portable MP3 player attached to wired electrodes, a TENS device helps relieve pain by delivering low-level, pulsed electrical currents that pass through the skin to the area of pain. These currents stimulate your peripheral nerves to induce pain relief. Research suggests that TENS works best for mild pain, but not all who use it benefit.

There are many other complementary and integrative approaches to pain management that you can work into your lifestyle. These include acupuncture, herbal treatments, meditation, music therapy, hypnosis and others. Explore what helps you feel better — and when you find something that works, stick with it.

When to see a health care professional

You've tried pain relievers and massage. You've heated and iced. And yet your pain persists. Don't get discouraged. Instead, see your health care professional to discuss other options for pain relief.

You should also see your health care professional if:

  • Your pain changes. For instance, the ache that started as a 4 on the pain scale is now an 8.
  • You develop new symptoms. See your health care professional if you're experiencing tingling, numbness, burning or other new symptoms.
  • You've exhausted your options. If you feel the need to take an over-the-counter medication for more than 10 days in a row, and other efforts — such as massage or using heating pads — aren't effective, then see your health care professional.
  • You're frustrated or discouraged. Your health care professional should be able to recommend a plan using multiple approaches — including prescription medications, complementary methods and lifestyle changes — to improve your pain and your quality of life.
July 02, 2019

See also

  1. 6 tips for living well with ankylosing spondylitis
  2. A Pain-Free Thumbs Up!
  3. Achilles tendon rupture
  4. Acid reflux and GERD
  5. ACL injury
  6. Acupuncture for back pain?
  7. Acute coronary syndrome
  8. Acute myelogenous leukemia
  9. Airplane ear
  10. Anal cancer
  11. Anal itching
  12. Ankylosing spondylitis
  13. Ankylosing spondylitis: Am I at risk of osteoporosis?
  14. Ankylosing spondylitis: Eat well for bone health
  15. Ankylosing spondylitis: Exercising safely
  16. Ankylosing spondylitis: Reduce your risk of falling
  17. Ankylosing spondylitis: Understand your treatment options
  18. Appendicitis
  19. Arthritis creams
  20. Avascular necrosis (osteonecrosis)
  21. Back pain
  22. Infographic: Back Pain
  23. Back pain relief: Ergonomic chair or fitness ball?
  24. Back surgery: When is it a good idea?
  25. Banish back pain
  26. Base tan? Bad idea
  27. Bee sting
  28. Bell's palsy
  29. Bipolar disorder
  30. Bipolar disorder and alcoholism: Are they related?
  31. Bipolar disorder in children: Is it possible?
  32. Bipolar medications and weight gain
  33. Bipolar treatment: I vs. II
  34. Blood Cancers and Disorders
  35. Blood tests for heart disease
  36. Broken collarbone
  37. Broken hand
  38. Broken nose
  39. Broken ribs
  40. Bunions
  41. Burns
  42. Bursitis
  43. Calcium supplements: A risk factor for heart attack?
  44. Can vitamins help prevent a heart attack?
  45. Cardiogenic shock
  46. Cellulitis
  47. Cellulitis: How to prevent recurrent episodes
  48. Cellulitis infection: Is it contagious?
  49. Cervical spondylosis
  50. Chelation therapy for heart disease: Does it work?
  51. Chest pain
  52. Chronic daily headaches
  53. Chronic pelvic pain in women
  54. Chronic sinusitis
  55. Cluster headache
  56. Collecting Pennies Through the Pain
  57. Complex regional pain syndrome
  58. Contact dermatitis
  59. Costochondritis
  60. Cough headaches
  61. Cyclothymia (cyclothymic disorder)
  62. Daily aspirin therapy
  63. De Quervain tenosynovitis
  64. Deep heat treatment
  65. Degenerative changes in the spine: Is this arthritis?
  66. Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH)
  67. Diphtheria
  68. Diverticulitis
  69. Ewing sarcoma
  70. Factor V Leiden
  71. Fasting diet: Can it improve my heart health?
  72. Fibromyalgia
  73. Fibromyalgia and acupuncture
  74. Flu Shot Prevents Heart Attack
  75. Flu shots and heart disease
  76. Folliculitis
  77. Football Spinal Cord Injury - The Chris Norton Story
  78. Frostbite
  79. Frostbite: First aid
  80. Gaucher disease
  81. Genital herpes
  82. Genital herpes: Can you get it from a toilet seat?
  83. Geographic tongue
  84. Getting active after acute coronary syndrome
  85. Giant cell arteritis
  86. Glucosamine: Does it protect cartilage in osteoarthritis?
  87. Golf and Wrist Pain
  88. Grass-fed beef
  89. Greenstick fractures
  90. Growth plate fractures
  91. Hammertoe and mallet toe
  92. Headaches 101: Know your type
  93. Headaches and hormones
  94. Headaches: Treatment depends on your diagnosis and symptoms
  95. Healthy eating: One step at a time
  96. Healthy Heart for Life!
  97. Heart attack
  98. Heart attack prevention: Should I avoid secondhand smoke?
  99. Heart attack symptoms
  100. Heart Attack Timing
  101. Heart disease
  102. Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors
  103. Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease
  104. Slide show: Heart-healthy eating after acute coronary syndrome
  105. Heartburn
  106. Heartburn or chest pain?
  107. Heat therapy
  108. Hemophilia
  109. Herniated disk FAQs
  110. High potassium (hyperkalemia)
  111. Hives and angioedema
  112. How do ankylosing spondylitis and pregnancy affect each other?
  113. Ice therapy
  114. Impacted wisdom teeth
  115. Ingrown hair
  116. Inguinal hernia
  117. Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction
  118. Jellyfish stings
  119. Keratitis
  120. Kidney infection
  121. Knee bursitis
  122. Lead poisoning
  123. Living better with ankylosing spondylitis
  124. Lyme disease
  125. Mayo Clinic Minute - Health Precautions You Need to Know About Pedicures
  126. Mayo Clinic Minute: Why the risk of frostbite is greater than you think
  127. Menstrual cramps
  128. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness
  129. Mental health providers: Tips on finding one
  130. Mental illness
  131. Menus for heart-healthy eating
  132. Mittelschmerz
  133. Mumps
  134. Myelofibrosis
  135. Myelofibrosis
  136. Myofascial release therapy: Can it relieve back pain?
  137. Nail fungus
  138. Neurofibromatosis
  139. What is ulcerative colitis? A Mayo Clinic expert explains
  140. Nighttime headaches: Relief
  141. NSAIDs: Do they increase my risk of heart attack and stroke?
  142. Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health
  143. Omega-3 in fish
  144. Omega-6 fatty acids
  145. Oral lichen planus
  146. Oral thrush
  147. Osteoarthritis
  148. Osteochondritis dissecans
  149. Osteomalacia
  150. Osteomyelitis
  151. Pain Management
  152. Painful intercourse (dyspareunia)
  153. Patellofemoral pain syndrome
  154. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  155. Periodontitis
  156. Phantom pain
  157. Pilonidal cyst
  158. Pinched nerve
  159. Plantar fasciitis
  160. Plantar warts
  161. Polymyalgia rheumatica
  162. Polypill: Does it treat heart disease?
  163. Postherpetic neuralgia
  164. Priapism
  165. Protein: Heart-healthy sources
  166. Put fish on the menu
  167. Ramsay Hunt syndrome
  168. Mayo Clinic Minute: Rattlesnakes, scorpions and other desert dangers
  169. Reactive arthritis
  170. Red wine, antioxidants and resveratrol
  171. Rickets
  172. Ruptured spleen
  173. Sacroiliitis
  174. Sciatica
  175. Scorpion sting
  176. Scrotal masses
  177. Shave better to reduce ingrown hairs
  178. Shingles
  179. Shingles and alcohol
  180. Shingles vaccine: Can I transmit the vaccine virus to others?
  181. Shingles vaccine: Should I get it?
  182. Silent heart attack
  183. Sinus headaches
  184. Sleeping positions that reduce back pain
  185. Causes of back pain
  186. Somatic symptom disorder
  187. Spider bites
  188. Spinal cord injury
  189. Spinal stenosis
  190. Sprains
  191. Heart disease prevention
  192. Stress and headaches: Stop the cycle
  193. Stress fractures
  194. Sun allergy
  195. Sunburn
  196. Swimmer's ear
  197. Syringomyelia
  198. Tailbone pain
  199. Tendinitis
  200. Tendinitis pain: Should I apply ice or heat?
  201. Integrative approaches to treating pain
  202. Nutrition and pain
  203. Pain rehabilitation
  204. Thumb arthritis
  205. Thumb Reconstruction
  206. Thunderclap headaches
  207. Transverse myelitis
  208. Trigeminal neuralgia
  209. Ulcerative colitis
  210. Ulcerative colitis flare-ups: 5 tips to manage them
  211. Varicocele
  212. Video: Allergy or irritant: The truth about your rash
  213. Video: Heart and circulatory system
  214. Heartburn and hiatal hernia
  215. Vulvar cancer
  216. West Nile virus
  217. What is meant by the term "heart age"?
  218. Wisdom teeth removal: When is it necessary?
  219. Infographic: Women and Heart Disease
  220. Wrist pain