How to Relieve Pain
Strategies You Can Use
Along with Medicine
Table of Contents
Relaxation ............................................................................... Page 1
Distraction ............................................................................... Page 5
Skin Stimulation ..................................................................... Page 6
What Are Some of the Ways I Can Relieve Pain Without Taking Medicine?
For some people, pain can be relieved without using medicine. They use relaxation, imagery,
distraction, and skin stimulation. You may need the help of health professionals to learn to do
these for yourself. Friends or family members can help with some of them. The techniques are
also helpful when used along with pain medicines.
How Does RELAXATION Work?
Relaxation relieves pain or keeps it from getting worse by reducing tension in the muscles. It can
help you fall asleep, give you more energy, and make you feel less tired. It can reduce your
anxiety. You may find it makes other pain relief methods work better. Some people, for
instance, find that taking a pain medicine or using a cold or hot pack works faster and better
when they relax at the same time.
Basic Guidelines For Using RELAXATION Techniques?
How well you are able to relax may vary from time to time. Relaxation cannot be forced.
It may take up to two weeks of practice to feel the first results of relaxation.
Try a few relaxation methods until you find one that works for you.
Stick with the same method so that it becomes easy and routine for you. Use it regularly for
at least 5 to 10 minutes twice a day.
Check for tension throughout the day by taking note of tightness in each part of your body
from head to foot. Relax any tense muscles. You may want to use a quick technique such as
inhale/tense, exhale/relax. This is explained on the next page.
If you have any lung problems, check with your doctor before using any deep breathing
Is There Any Special Position I Should Be in When I Am Doing RELAXATION Exercises?
Relaxation may be done sitting up or lying down. Choose a quiet place when you can. Close
your eyes. Do not cross your arms and legs because that may cut off circulation and cause
numbness or tingling. If you are lying down, be sure you are comfortable. Put a small pillow
under your neck and under your knees or use a low stool to support your lower legs.
How Do I Use RELAXATION?
There are many methods. Here are some for you to try. Do these exercises for a few seconds up
to 10 minutes, based on your need.
Visual concentration and rhythmic massage
Open your eyes and stare at an object, or close your eyes and think of a peaceful, calm scene.
With the palm of your hand, massage near where the pain is in a circular, firm manner. Avoid
red, raw, swollen, or tender areas. You may wish to ask a family member or friend to do this for
Breathe in (inhale) deeply. At the same time, tense your muscles or a group of muscles. For
instance, you can squeeze your eyes shut, frown, clench your teeth, make a fist, stiffen your arms
and legs or draw up your arms and legs as tightly as you can.
Hold your breath and keep your muscles tense for a second or two.
Let go! Breathe out (exhale) and let your body go limp.
Slow rhythmic breathing
Stare at an object or close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing or on a peaceful scene.
Take a slow, deep breath and, as you breathe in, tense your muscles (such as your arms).
As you breathe out, relax your muscles and feel the tension draining.
Now remain relaxed and begin breathing slowly and comfortably, concentrating on your
breathing, taking about 9 to 12 breaths a minute. Do not breathe too deeply.
To maintain a slow, even rhythm as you breathe out, you can say silently to yourself, “In, one,
two, out, one, two.” It may be helpful at first if someone counts out loud for you. If you ever
feel out of breath, take a deep breath and then return to the slow breathing exercise. Each time
you breathe out, feel yourself relaxing and going limp. If some muscles are not relaxed such as
your shoulders, tense them as you breathe in relax them as you breathe out. You need to do this
only once or twice for each muscle group.
To end your slow rhythmic breathing, count silently and slowly from one to three. Open your
eyes. Say silently to yourself: “I feel alert and relaxed.” Begin moving about slowly.
Other methods you can add to slow rhythmic breathing:
ξ Imagery - imagine that the air you breathe in blows a healing ball of energy to the site of
your pain. Once there, the ball heals and relaxes you. When you breathe out, imagine the
air blows the ball away from your body. As it goes, the ball takes your pain with it. (Be
careful: Do not blow as you breathe out; breathe out naturally.) Repeat the last two steps
each time you breathe in and out. You may imagine that the ball gets bigger and bigger
as it takes more and more pain away from your body. To end the imagery, count slowly
to three, breathe in deeply, open your eyes, and say silently to yourself: "I feel alert and
relaxed." Begin moving about slowly.
Listen to slow, familiar music through an earphone or headset.
Progressive relaxation of body parts. Once you are breathing slowly and comfortably,
you may relax different body parts. Start with your feet and work up to your head. Think
of words such as limp, heavy, light, warm, or floating. Each time you breathe out, you
can focus on a certain part of the body and feel it relaxing. Try to imagine that the
tension is draining from that part. For instance, as you breathe out, feel your feet and
ankles relaxing. The next time you breathe out, feel your calves and knees relaxing, and
so on up your body.
This technique can induce deep states of relaxation. It can have a similar affect in reducing pain
as progressive relaxation and guided imagery. Yet unlike these techniques, in the practice of
mindfulness you do not ignore physical sensations, or physical discomfort. Instead you willingly
observe them from a center of calmness through non-judgmental moment to moment attention.
The main focus would be the sensations such as pressure, burning, pulling, pulsing, etc. The core
of mindulness meditation is being with things just as they are, on purpose, in the present
moment. This is done to improve healing and produce a feeling of freedom from pain.
ξ The Body Scan is a good method to start with for people with chronic pain. Lie in a
comfortable position and tune into your breathing. Use your breathing to move your
attention slowly and systematically through the body. Try to have moment-to moment
awareness of what you are feeling in the body. As thoughts, feelings, sensations, and
sounds come up, practice simply seeing them and letting them be as they are. As you
observe the sensations in the hurt area, notice how they are changing. Move slowly,
scanning this way through your whloe body as best you can. Try to stay with the physical
sensations. Avoid dropping away from the “thoughts” or your reactions about the pain.
Your relationship to pain is now changing and that can impact everything.
Ask your doctor or nurse to suggest tapes that you can purchase. These tapes provide step-by-
step instructions in relaxation techniques.
Will I Have Any Problems with Using RELAXATION Techniques?
Some people who have used relaxation for pain relief have mentioned these problems. Below
are listed these problems and ways to manage them.
Relaxation may be hard to use with severe pain. If you have this problem, use a quick
and easy relaxation method. This includes methods such as visual concentration with
rhythmic massage or breathe in/tense, breathe out/relax.
You may have a feeling of "suffocation." If so, take a deep breath.
Sometimes breathing too deeply for a while can cause shortness of breath. If this is your
problem, take shallow breaths. It may also help to breathe more slowly.
You may fall asleep. If you do not wish to fall asleep, sit in a hard chair while doing the
exercise or set a timer or alarm.
You might get feelings of depression or withdrawal. Sometimes being relaxed makes you
aware of problems you did not realize were bothering you. If this happens, talk to
someone who can help you sort out your feelings.
If you have trouble using these methods, ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to a therapist who
can help with these techniques. Do not keep doing any relaxation technique that makes your pain
worse. Also do not keep doing any technique that makes you feel uneasy, or causes any
What Is DISTRACTION and How Does It Work?
Distraction means turning your focus to something other than the pain. Many people use this
method without knowing it. It is done when they watch television or listen to the radio to "take
their minds off" the pain.
Distraction may work better than medicine if pain is sudden and intense or if it is brief, lasting
only 5 to 45 minutes. It is useful when you are waiting for pain medicine to start working. If
pain is mild, you may be able to distract yourself for hours.
Some people think that a person who can be distracted from pain does not have severe pain. This
is not necessarily true. This technique can be a powerful way of relieving even the most intense
pain for a short amount of time.
How Can I Use DISTRACTION?
Any activity that keeps your attention can be used. If you enjoy working with your hands, crafts
such as needlework, model building, or painting may be useful. Losing yourself in a good book
might divert your mind from the pain. Going to a movie or watching television are also good
distraction methods. Slow, rhythmic breathing can be used to distract you as well as for
You may find it helpful to listen to rather fast music through a headset or earphones. To help
keep your focus on the music, tap out the rhythm. You can adjust the volume to match the
intensity of pain, making it louder for very severe pain. Doing this does not take much energy, so
it may be very useful when you are tired.
What Is SKIN STIMULATION?
How Do I Use Massage?
For pain relief, massage works best when slow, steady, circular motions are used. You can
massage over or near the site of the pain with just your bare hand. You may wish to use any
substance that feels good such as talcum powder, warm oil, or hand lotion. Depending upon
where your pain is, you may massage the site yourself or ask a family member or friend to give
you a massage. Having someone give you a foot rub, back rub, or hand rub can be very relaxing
and may relieve pain. Some people find brushing or stroking lightly feels better than deep
massage. Use the method that works best for you.
NOTE: If you are having radiation therapy, avoid massage in the treatment area.
How Do I Use Pressure?
Pressure can be applied with the entire hand, the heel of the hand, the fingertip, the knuckle, or
the ball of the thumb. Pressure can be applied by using one or both hands to encircle your arm or
leg. Try applying pressure for about 10 seconds to different areas over or near your pain to see
where it might help. You can also feel around your pain and outward to see if you can find
"trigger points." These are small areas under the skin that are very sensitive or that trigger pain.
Pressure works best if it is applied as firmly as possible without causing pain. You can use
pressure for up to about 1 minute. This will often relieve pain for minutes to several hours after
the pressure is released.
How Do I Use Vibration?
Vibration over or near the site of the pain may bring short term relief. For example, the scalp
attachment of a hand-held vibrator often relieves a headache. For low back pain, a long, slender
battery-operated vibrator placed at the small of the back may be helpful. You may use a
vibrating device such as a small battery-operated vibrator, a hand-held electric vibrator, a large
heat-massage electric pad, or a bed vibrator.
Which Is Better for Relieving Pain - Cold or Heat?
As for any of the techniques described, you should use what works best for you. Heat often
relieves sore muscles; cold lessens pain by numbing the area. Many people with prolonged pain
use only heat and have never given cold a try. Some people find that cold relieves pain faster,
and relief may last longer.
What Are Some Comfortable and Easy Ways to Use Cold or Heat?
For cold, try gel packs that are sealed in plastic and remain soft and flexible even at freezing
temperatures. Gel packs can be found at drugstores and medical supply stores. They can be
reused and kept in the freezer when not in use. Wrap the pack with a layer of towels so that it is
not too cold for you. An ice pack or ice cubes wrapped in a towel can work just as well.
To use heat for pain relief, a heating pad that makes its own moisture (hydrocolater) is handy.
Gel packs heated in hot water, hot water bottles, a hot, moist towel, a regular heating pad, hot
bath or shower can also be used to apply heat. For aching joints, such as elbows and knees, you
can wrap the joint in lightweight plastic wrap (tape the plastic to itself). This retains body heat
NOTE: Do not use heat or cold over any area being treated with radiation.
How Do I Use Menthol Preparations?
First, test your skin by rubbing a small amount of the menthol preparation in a circle about 1 inch
wide on the site of the pain or the part you want to be stimulated. This will let you know whether
the menthol does not feel good to you or irritates your skin. If the menthol does not create a
problem, rub some more into the area. The sensation caused by the menthol slowly increases. It
can remain up to several hours. To increase how intense the feeling is or how long the menthol
is felt, you can open your skin pores with heat (shower, sun) wrap a plastic sheet over the site
after rubbing in the menthol. Don't use a heating pad because it may cause a burn. If you're
afraid others will not like the odor, you can use the menthol product when you are alone or
perhaps in the evening or through the night.
NOTE: Many menthol preparations contain an ingredient similar to aspirin. A small amount of
this aspirin-like substance is absorbed through the skin. If you have been told not to take aspirin,
do not use these preparations until you check with your doctor.
What Precautions Should I Take If I Use Skin Stimulation?
Heat and cold can easily damage your skin. It is easy to burn the skin with hot water from the tap
or with settings too high on the heating pad. Extreme cold can also burn your skin.
Never use a heating pad on bare skin.
Never go to sleep for the night with the heating pad on.
Be very careful while using a heating pad if you are taking drugs or medicines that make
you sleepy or if you do not have much feeling in the area.
Limit the time heat or cold is applied to 5 to 10 minutes.
Do not use heat or cold over any site where your circulation or sensation is poor.
If you start to shiver when using cold, stop using it right away.
Do not use cold so intense or for so long that the cold itself causes pain.
Do not use heat over a new injury. Heat can increase bleeding. Wait at least 24 hours.
Do not rub menthol preparations over broken skin, a skin rash, or mucous membranes
(such as inside your mouth or around your rectum). Make sure you do not get the
menthol in your eyes.
Avoid massage and vibration over red, raw, tender, or swollen sites.
If skin stimulation increases your pain, stop using it.
As noted earlier, if you are undergoing (or have undergone) radiation treatments, do not
use any skin stimulation method without first checking with your doctor or nurse.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright ©11/2015. University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4448.