In Search of Relief: Exploring Treatments for Chronic Pain

In September 2019, Health Union (the parent company of partnered with the U.S. Pain Foundation to learn more about how chronic pain affects the members of our communities. More than 4,700 people living with chronic pain completed the survey.

The results from our 2019 Chronic Pain In America survey show that people who participated use a wide variety of drugs and alternative therapies to address their chronic pain. However, only 14 percent of respondents feel that their pain is currently well managed.

What treatments do people use to manage chronic pain?

People with chronic pain use a wide variety of prescription drugs to manage their pain. Respondents shared that they also use over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and devices, as well as invasive and non-invasive interventions.

Antidepressants and neuromodulators are the most common types of prescription pain medicines used by people in our survey.

  • 38 percent regularly use antidepressants like Cymbalta® and Effexor®, while 30 percent have used antidepressants in the past
  • 28 percent regularly use neuromodulators like gabapentin and pregabalin, while 37 percent have used this type of prescription medication in the past
  • 52 percent have used hydrocodone or hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Vicodin®, Norco®, Lortab®) in the past
  • 48 percent have taken Tramadol (Ultram®) in the past
  • 47 percent have taken codeine in the past

About a quarter of survey respondents shared that they regularly take OTC pain medication, including acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium. However, respondents reported that prescription pain medicines are more effective than OTC drugs.

These surgeries and procedures were mentioned by people in our survey as things they regularly use or use when needed:

  • Surgery (e.g., back, knee, spine)
  • Injections (e.g., steroid, cortisone, facet joint, trigger point)
  • Epidural
  • Ablation, a procedure where a portion of nerve tissue is destroyed or removed
  • Fusion, a procedure that joins two or more spinal bones to stop movement
  • DRG stimulator, a device that is placed under the skin and sends electrical impulses to spinal nerves
  • Hip replacement
  • IV/infusions (e.g., ketamine)
  • Nerve blocks
  • Spinal injections

A few of the many alternative therapies that people in our survey regularly use or use when needed include:

  • Brace
  • Pillow
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Cupping, a procedure where small cups are attached to the skin to create suction
  • Equipment such as shower bars or walker
  • Percussion massage unit
  • Biofeedback, a therapy that uses sensors to measure body functions
  • Cefaly, a device that sends electrical impulses through an electrode on the forehead
  • Dry needling, a procedure where thin needles are inserted into muscle or tissue
  • Heating pad, hot baths
  • Physical therapy
  • Quell, a device that sends electrical impulses to the leg, foot, and knee

Do people have trouble getting drugs to manage chronic pain?

More than half of survey respondents said they have had difficulty getting drugs to manage their chronic pain. Many respondents shared that their doctor or healthcare provider was a barrier for them.

  • 34 percent said their provider would not prescribe them their medication
  • 16 percent said their physician cut them off from their pain medication cold turkey
  • 15 percent said their doctor tapered them off of their medication without prescribing a new medication

Another 34 percent of respondents ran out of medication too soon or ran out of pain drug refills. Insurance was also a common obstacle for people. About 1 in 5 respondents said that their insurance refused to cover their prescriptions. Another 14 percent reported that their pharmacist would not fill their pain prescriptions.

Other common barriers included cost, decreased dosage, and drug shortages.

What are the most common side effects of pain medicine?

Drugs used to manage chronic pain often cause side effects. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed said they have experienced side effects such as:

  • Constipation
  • Drowsiness
  • Clouded thinking/feeling “loopy”
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Insomnia

Unwanted side effects can cause people to stop taking their medication as prescribed or stop taking it altogether. About 1 out of 3 respondents said they stopped taking their pain medicine because of side effects.

What are some alternative treatments for chronic pain?

Many people talked about the complementary and alternative therapies they used to manage their pain. Nearly 60 percent currently use spirituality or prayer to help with their pain.

Just over half said they use heat therapy, made changes to their diet, and use exercise, such as yoga and Tai Chi, to manage their chronic pain. Massage caffeine, extra rest, and acupressure were other popular methods.

More than 65 percent said they would like to try other complementary and alternative therapies to manage their chronic pain, but they do not have access to them. Some of the reasons why they have not tried different methods include:

  • Cannot afford alternative therapies
  • Not covered by insurance
  • Not available in certain locations/states
  • Taking certain alternative therapies is against the law
  • Time constraints

Some respondents shared that fear prevents them from trying alternative methods. Their reasons included:

  • Scared alternative therapies will not work
  • Afraid of side effects
  • Very skeptical of alternative therapies

The Chronic Pain in America 2019 survey took place from mid-September through mid-October of 2019. The 4,725 respondents were recruited from Health Union’s Community channels, as well as the U.S. Pain Foundation.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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