How do naturopathic doctors help people manage chronic pain without highly
Anyone who has ever experienced chronic pain knows how debilitating it can be. Yet the
most commonly recommended conventional medical solution—prescription opioid
painkillers—is turning out to be worse than the problem. Opioids may stop the pain, but at a
high price: growing numbers of deaths due to opioid overdose and higher rates of addiction
As a medical discipline that emphasizes a holistic approach and natural treatments,
naturopathic medicine offers safe and effective alternatives to highly addictive drugs for
managing chronic pain. Licensed naturopathic doctors are educated at four-year, postgraduate
medical schools to start with non-drug approaches to chronic pain management,
and use opioid painkillers as a last resort.
Naturopathic doctors are also trained to develop personalized pain management treatment
plans. These plans take into account each individual’s lifestyle, nutrition, work and leisure
activities, current and past stressors, and relevant previous injuries—in other words, the
root causes of each person’s pain and all its manifestations. The plans use various
combinations of dietary recommendations and nutritional supplements along with botanical
medicines to help reduce inflammation and the pain it causes. Exercise, physical
rehabilitation, and mind-body approaches that are known to reduce perception of pain are
also included in the plans.
In addition, naturopathic doctors recognize the value of working closely with conventional
and alternative medical providers and will make appropriate referrals for further diagnostic
work-up, treatment support, or surgical intervention as indicated. In turn, a growing
number of conventional medical doctors refer patients and colleagues looking for a fresh
perspective for difficult-to-treat chronic pain to naturopathic doctors.
For more information on naturopathic medicine see FAQ #2 in this service, available here.
Perspective: a national crisis that is only getting worse
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Of the more
than 52,000 deaths due to drug overdose in 2015, prescription opioid painkillers such as
oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl accounted for about 20,000. Of
the 20.5 million Americans over the age of 12 who had a substance use disorder in 2015, 2
million involved prescription opioids.
How did this happen? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in the late 1990s,
pharmaceutical companies reassured health care providers that people would not become
addicted to prescription opioids. As a result, physicians began to prescribe them at greater
rates, leading to widespread misuse. Between 21 percent and 29 percent of people who are
prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them; between eight percent and 12 percent
develop an opioid use disorder.
Opioids aren’t the only dangerous pain management drug. Numerous studies link aspirin to
a broad range of side effects ranging from gastric ulcers to cerebral bleeding. And a growing
body of research links ibuprofen to adverse health effects, including increased risk of heart
attack and stroke, gastrointestinal complications including ulcer, acute kidney failure,
anemia, DNA damage, hypertension, and miscarriage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total economic burden of
prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year.
Naturopathic doctors play an important role in the opioid wars
Along with medical professionals from other disciplines, naturopathic doctors are actively
engaged in collaborative efforts to solve America’s opioid problem. This includes
participating in working groups to develop better pain management practices and modify
national prescribing habits to limit the overuse of opioids. One example is the policy brief for
the PAINS project, “Never-Only Opioids: The Imperative for Early Use of NonPharmacological
Approaches and Practitioners in Pain Care.” Naturopathic doctors played a
leading role in the development and dissemination of the brief
Article link: http://www.naturopathic.org/natfaqs
A service for consumers from the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP)
and the Institute for Natural Medicine (INM).
The AANP and the INM would like to acknowledge Amy Rothenberg, ND for her contributions
to the content of this FAQ. Some of the content for the FAQ appeared in articles by Dr.
Rothenberg in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post.
*results may vary from person to person.