A Glossary of Common Pain Treatments

Doctors and therapists use a variety of weapons to combat pain. Here's a primer.

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Here is a glossary of common pain treatments:

Over-the-counter or non-prescription medications:

Basic types are NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like common aspirin, Advil, Motrin, and Aleve) and acetaminophen (Tylenol and Panadol). Used for the relief of moderate pain; risks and potential side effects include upset stomach and gastrointestinal bleeding.

Anti-convulsant drugs:

Developed primarily to reduce or control epileptic seizures, these drugs have also been used for many years to treat chronic pain caused by nerve damage. Newer anti-seizure drugs like gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica) have fewer side effects; both treat diabetic nerve damage and other conditions.

Non-narcotic pain relievers (Tramadol):

Used to treat moderate and severe pain, including post-operative pain, and most types of neuralgia. Although technically not a narcotic, can become habit-forming, causing mental or physical dependence. Other adverse reactions include nausea, vomiting, and constipation.

Narcotic pain relievers:

Often used to relieve severe pain, as well as to augment the anesthetic effect of drugs used just prior to or during surgery; also combined with acetaminophen (Endocet, Percocet, Vicodin) to provide better pain relief, and in some cases, at lower doses. May become habit-forming if used for a long time or in large doses.

Injection therapy:

Used when pain can be localized to a specific spot, such as a joint or a trigger point in a muscle. Injections typically include a numbing agent for immediate relief, along with a corticosteroid for reducing inflammation and longer-term relief. Though rare, infections pose a risk. Also, corticosteroids when injected directly into tendons or nerves can cause local damage.

Nerve blocks:

Often used in combination with other therapies, these injections, typically of local anesthetics and steroids, impede either the signals coming from the nerves outside of the brain or spinal cord (peripheral nerve blocks), or signals emanating from nerves regulating blood flow, sweating, and glandular function (sympathetic nerve blocks). X-ray and ultrasound guidance has made more accurate needle placement possible.

Spinal cord stimulation:

A procedure that uses electrical current to treat chronic pain of neurological origin, including complex regional pain syndrome. Simple surgery is necessary to implant the stimulator.


With its origins in China thousands of years ago, this alternative therapy involves the insertion to various depths of thin needles at strategic points on the body. May be used as a stand-alone or adjunctive therapy; shown to offer in some cases symptomatic relief for a variety of diseases and conditions, including lower back pain, fibromyalgia, and headaches.

Behavioral therapy:

An umbrella term for a variety of methods (relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, biofeedback, visualization, and others) aimed at enlisting the mind in the effort to relieve pain. Additionally, cognitive behavioral therapy teaches patients to alter the way they respond to and think about their symptoms, thereby gaining better control of their pain.

Click here to read a feature story about the different ways doctors attempt to relieve their patients’ pain.

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