Options for managing chronic pain

Many types of chronic pain are not curable, but they are treatable.

An acupuncture needle is used on a person's hand.
Acupuncture is categorized by the National Institutes of Health as a complementary treatment type.

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH) an estimated 25.3 million adults (11.2 percent) in the United States experience chronic pain, with chronic pain being defined as having pain every day for three months. Those with severe pain are likely to have worse health status and chronic pain is the most common cause of long-term disability.

Acute pain versus chronic pain

Although unpleasant, pain is a necessary signal from the nervous system to let us know that something is wrong. There are two kinds of pain, acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain is the result of disease or injury to tissues; it can be diagnosed and treated. It is “self-limiting” meaning that it lasts for a defined amount of time. Examples of acute pain include pain after surgery or pain caused by a broken bone. Chronic pain is different. According to the National Institutes of Health, chronic pain is thought to be a chronic disease condition. Chronic pain lasts for a long period of time and is resistant to many medical treatments. Many types of chronic pain are not curable, but they are treatable. Examples of chronic pain are pain that results from nerve damage due to stroke, fibromyalgia or arthritis.

Since chronic pain can be so debilitating and difficult to treat, finding a treatment is often a difficult and confusing task. What follows is a brief overview of the types of treatments. While looking for treatment, it is very important not to fall victim to dishonest practices and claims.

Definitions and categorization of treatment:

The National Institutes of Health breaks down treatment into two broad categories, traditional and complementary.


  • Medicine including over-the-counter pain relievers and opioids
  • Therapy including:
    • physical therapy
    • occupational therapy
    • behavior therapy


  • Acupuncture and massage

The American Chronic Pain Association’s (ACPA) Resource Guide to Chronic Pain Management: An Integrated Guide to Medical, Interventional, Behavioral, Pharmacologic and Rehabilitation Therapies for 2018 breaks down treatments as follows:

Major types of interventions:

  • Functional restoration approaches and programs
  • Self-directed intervention
  • Active interventions delivered by professionals
  • Psychological and behavioral approaches

Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine (CAM) interventions

  • “Complementary medicine and alternative medicine are different from each other. Complementary medicine is used together with conventional medicine while alternative medicine is used in place of conventional medicine. Integrative or integrated medicine combines treatments from conventional medicine and CAM for which there is some high-quality evidence of safety and effectiveness. Always check with your health care provider or pharmacist as drug interactions can occur with many alternative or “natural” medications.”

If you choose a CAM intervention, you may want to visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health for safety information on treatment products and practices.

Resources that can help you manage chronic pain

Michigan State University Extension offers a six-week workshop that can be categorized as a behavior therapy or self-directed intervention. It is called the Chronic Pain Self-Management Program and meets once a week for two and a half hours. It is led by trained facilitators and topics covered include effective communication, action plans, problem solving, techniques to deal with difficult emotions and appropriate use of medication. Participants receive “Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Pain,” a book that supplements in-class activities. The book includes a CD of the Moving Easy Program, a series of exercises appropriate for maintaining and improving strength, flexibility and endurance. The exercises are gentle and can be modified for any level of ability. Participants of the workshop have reported increased ability to manage pain and work with health care providers.

To learn more about ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle, visit Michigan State University Extension. MSU Extension offers various educational programs for adults, families, and children that focus on lifestyle changes to promote healthy eating and wellness. Contact your local MSU Extension office about a class near you.

MSU Extension suggests the following resources for chronic pain:

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