The quest for pain relief is nothing to shake a stick at. Each year, over 289 million pain-relieving prescriptions are being prescribed, with roughly 80 percent being consumed in the U.S. alone. [*]
If you’ve ever experienced a painful injury or relentless pain from chronic disability, these statistics probably aren’t anywhere near surprising. After all, functioning optimally in modern society is challenging enough without a layer of physical pain overshadowing it.
However, even with all of the understandable justifications for pain medications, the fact remains: painkillers, and most especially opiate painkillers, can have a range of scary side effects that could impact our short and long term health.
Because of this, we’re diving into your best options for natural painkillers, and alternatives that may help you reduce, or even eliminate the need for opiates, depending upon your pain levels.
Opiates: The Side Effects
Opiates are a class of narcotic drugs that work to relieve pain by depressing the central nervous system (CNS). They are developed from opium, which is produced from either poppy plants or synthetic alkaloids.
Some of the most popular prescribed opiates include Morphine, Codeine, Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), and even Heroin.
While at first glance the fact that opiates stem from poppy may make them seem as if they’re more “natural” extractions, the final medication is anything but natural. In fact, most opiates are extremely addictive, which is one of the reasons a prescription is required in order to obtain them.
So – what exactly makes opiates so addictive? It turns out humans have opiate receptors in our brains that, while built for receiving certain internal neurotransmitters that have similar effects as opiates, can also receive “external” versions of these in the form of opiates.
These opiates then bind to these receptors in our nervous system in order to mimic the effects of pain-relieving chemicals we produce naturally. While this does suppress feelings of pain, it can also cause a host of other symptoms such as confusion, drowsiness, and even nausea and dizziness.
The addiction aspect of opiates is believed to be due to the euphoric feeling many can induce, which is similar to a blissful high. Many extremely addictive drugs (such as heroin, which is classified as an opiate) are opiates that produce this effect. And, while useful in the short term in order to relieve severe pain, becoming dependent upon opiates can lead to not only abuse and overdosing for “higher highs,” but also serious withdrawal symptoms that make it difficult to wean off of them.
Natural Opiate Painkiller Alternatives
Luckily, with the discovery of just how addictive opiates are (and the scary fact that their usage is still on the rise), researchers have begun making headway into promising new natural alternatives to painkillers.
- Eucalyptus and lavender essential oil
Lavender and eucalyptus are two of the best essential oils for pain relief. Studies have shown that inhaling lavender can help relieve migraine headaches, while also containing anti-inflammatory compounds that can reduce pain brought on by inflammation. [*]
Other research shows eucalyptus can also relieve pain. One study was done on patients post-knee replacement surgery found inhaling the oil provided pain relief when compared to almond oil. [*]
Many studies involve inhaling eucalyptus or lavender for its benefits, but you can also apply it topically by diluting a couple of drops in a carrier oil such as olive or almond oil, then rubbing it on the site of pain. Alternatively, you can grab a pre-made salve (Muscle & Joint Repair Salve) or pain-relieving body oil (Muscle & Joint Repair Body Oil) to apply them anytime.
Capsicum, or capsaicin, the compound present in chili peppers responsible for their spice and “heat,” have also shown in studies to be excellent for pain relief. One study found many pain-relieving products contain Capsaicin and believe that this relief comes from capsaicin’s ability to slightly “numb” the nerves surrounding the area of application. [*] If you’ve ever experienced a numb-like sensation on your mouth or lips after indulging in too much spice, you probably know the feeling.
You can buy a pre-made topical gel infused with capsicum (we offer a Cooling Gel here) to rub on pain sites as needed.
- Full Spectrum Hemp Extract
Full-spectrum hemp extract may be on your radar already as a natural relief to pain, due to its current popularity. However, science backs the trend: Full Spectrum Hemp Extract has shown to help relieve pain by binding to certain receptors in our bodies (similar to opiates but in a non-addictive and “non-high” inducing fashion) that help reduce pain and inflammation, even in difficult to treat, chronic, and widespread pain. [*]
The great thing about full spectrum hemp extract is that it comes in many forms: you can purchase lotions or salves for local pain, or take capsules and tinctures for treating widespread pain.
Interestingly, researchers have found that rosemary can also act on opiate receptors in our brains to block pain, without the addictive side effects (although more research is needed). One even found that rosemary oil helped reduce pain in people suffering from opiate withdrawal. [*]
Rosemary essential oil can be inhaled by diffusing the oil, or infused and applied topically in a balm or salve.
Acupuncture may also be an effective way to deal with more intense levels of pain. Studies show it can help manage chronic pain associated with musculoskeletal pain, headache, and pain caused by osteoarthritis. [*] Acupuncture works by stimulating certain points in the body and nervous system to release hormones and compounds that can help reduce pain and inflammation.
- Infrared sauna
A common treatment for pain relief is heat, either through taking hot baths, using warm compresses, or visiting a sauna.
Infrared saunas are a type of sauna that uses dry heat and infrared light waves to penetrate tissues deeper (don’t worry, you won’t feel it and it doesn’t hurt) than other forms of heat. This increases circulation and reduces inflammation to help usher in fresh nutrients and oxygen to affected areas, potentially also improving healing.
Studies show infrared can help reduce pain, stiffness, and even chronic fatigue. [*]
The Bottom Line
Opiate painkillers are highly addictive – and even though they help manage pain effectively, newer, more natural options exist that can help reduce or even eliminate opiate use. If you’re suffering from chronic or local pain, try one of the natural methods above and see how they work for you.