Controlling pain without drugs

There are various non-drug treatments or complementary therapies that may help with pain. Some people find these very helpful, however they don’t work for everyone.

These non-drug treatments or complementary therapies can be used on their own or with painkillers. If you decide to use a complementary therapy, always talk to your doctor first. Complementary therapies should not replace any treatments prescribed by your doctor.

Some treatments or therapies aim to help you cope better with pain, for example by teaching you techniques that relax and de-stress your body and mind. Others use physical therapies to relieve the pain.

There are many different treatments and therapies available:

  • TENS machine
  • Acupuncture
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Physiotherapy and exercise
  • Relaxation
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Meditation
  • Massage therapy
  • Visualisation (imagery)

If you do use any complementary therapies you should always use a qualified therapist. The British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA) has details of qualified therapists.

Non-drug therapies to help cancer pain

Other methods of pain control can be used on their own or with painkillers. These are non-drug treatments or complementary therapies. Some people find them very helpful. However, it is important to remember that they may not help everyone.

It is always best to talk to your doctor or healthcare team before starting a complementary therapy. Note that complementary therapies should not replace any treatments that your doctor has prescribed.

Always use a qualified therapist. The British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA) has details of qualified therapists.

TENS machine

A TENS machine is a battery-powered device with wires. The wires are attached to sticky pads, which are put on the surface of your skin (usually near the area of your pain). It sends a small electrical current into your body that feels like a tingling sensation. Some people say that using a TENS machine has helped ease their pain. You should always continue with your prescribed painkillers as a TENS machine alone is not effective.

It is important to check with your healthcare team before using a TENS machine. They are not suitable for everyone.

TENS machines may be available for short-term loan on the NHS. Pain teams, physiotherapists and many palliative care teams can advise you on whether TENS is suitable for you and how to use it. You can also buy a TENS machine from a pharmacy.


Acupuncture uses fine needles that are inserted just under the skin at certain pressure points on the body. It is not painful as the needles are so tiny. It’s thought that acupuncture may work by stimulating the body to produce endorphins. Endorphins are natural substances produced in the body, which are similar to morphine and help to reduce pain.

Acupuncture can help some people with cancer pain. It may also help relieve other cancer symptoms, such as feeling sick. Some specialist NHS pain and palliative care teams offer acupuncture. Your GP or cancer specialist can refer you. You may have to pay for this.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is a therapy that helps people change the way they feel, by changing the way they think and behave. This may help someone feel more in control of their illness. Some people say this has helped them with their pain. It cannot make the pain go away, but it may help someone to cope with the pain, and think about it in a different way. You can have CBT on a one-to-one basis with a trained therapist, or in group sessions. If you think it may help, ask your healthcare team about CBT.

Physiotherapy and exercise

Pain may stop you from using the part of your body that hurts. This may lead to muscle or joint stiffness. You may be able to see a physiotherapist who will help treat the problem with gentle massage and exercise. This may help to relieve the pain.

Physiotherapists can also advise you on any exercise you can do at home to help improve your pain. Check with your doctor or physiotherapist whether it is safe to exercise and what type of activity may help.


Learning to relax and let go of your fears and anxieties can also help control pain. Even if you can only do this for a short time each day, it will help. There are two main types of relaxation exercises:

  • Physical exercises – These release tension in your body. A technique called progressive muscle relaxation involves learning to tense and relax particular groups of muscles in the body. You can learn to relax and contract stomach muscles, neck muscles and other muscles individually or together. When you know how, you can start using the technique during stressful periods to help reduce tension and therefore pain. When you have learned the basic technique, you can use it to help with pain relief during more difficult times.
  • Mental exercises – For example, visualisation. This means seeing pictures in your head (see visualisation below). It can help relax your mind. Mental exercises can be helpful if you find that anxiety is making your pain worse.

To practice relaxation, find a quiet, warm, dimly lit, relaxing place. Make sure you will not be disturbed. Lie or sit in a well-supported position. These techniques are most helpful if you practise them for 5–15 minutes each day. Using relaxation tapes can help. You may want to try different things until you find the best sort of relaxation exercise for you. You can ask your doctor if there is a healthcare professional who can help you. This might be an occupational therapist or psychologist.


Hypnosis is a form of deep relaxation. It can help you to think about your pain differently. It will help you to focus your thoughts and feelings on something other than pain. You can learn how to hypnotise yourself. This is called self-hypnosis. It can help you change the way you think about pain and help you cope with difficult treatments or situations. Your GP may have a list of local therapists who provide hypnotherapy, or you can contact the National Register of Hypnotherapists and Psychotherapists.


There are many different types of meditation. They all aim to calm your mind so that you become at peace with yourself. To meditate, sit quietly and be aware of your breathing, without trying to control it. If you have a thought, try to ignore it and only focus on your breathing. If you prefer, you can put an object in front of you and focus on that instead.

Some hospices or hospitals have people who can help you meditate. Ask your doctor, specialist nurse or palliative care team about it.

If you’re being treated for any mental illnesses, check with your doctor before using meditation.

Massage therapy

Massage therapy is when someone strokes or applies gentle pressure to your body. It may help improve your mood and help you relax. Some people find it reduces pain.

Gentle massage can help relieve aching backs or limbs. Rubbing the painful area may help to reduce the number of pain messages reaching the brain. It also helps the muscles relax. Use unscented oils and lotions to keep your skin soft and supple.

Check with your doctor to see whether massage may help and if it is suitable for you.


Visualisation is when you bring happy, relaxing pictures into your mind. Remembering pleasant sounds, sights, tastes or smells may help you to feel more relaxed. It may help to distract you from the symptoms of pain and discomfort. Someone who has had special training can help you to practise visualisation. Check with your healthcare team about finding a trained therapist