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Non-Drug Treatment Options for Managing Pain

If you’re dealing with physical pain, know you aren’t alone. Military life can be hard on your body. In fact, about half of service members who deployed as part of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have a pain diagnosis. Nearly 30 percent report chronic pain.

Pain can result from injuries that occur when deployed, during training or even at home. Psychological stress can also have an impact on how you feel pain. Although pain is usually treated with medication, talk to your health care provider to see if a non-drug treatment option might work for you. Non-drug treatments can be used alone or to complement the medicines you take.

Managing Pain with CBT

One non-drug option is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can support treatment of many chronic pain conditions like frequent headaches and lower back pain. The goal of CBT is to help you use behaviors and thinking patterns that reduce your sense of pain. Always work with your health care provider to figure out the best treatment plan for you.

CBT can help you manage pain by:

  • Identifying and challenging incorrect beliefs about pain
  • Teaching coping skills like relaxation techniques
  • Learning about the causes and symptoms of pain
  • Assisting with stress management
  • Encouraging goal setting 

Throughout treatment, it is important to actively participate in your health care. Be an engaged patient by asking questions, going to appointments and following your provider’s guidance. Your provider may suggest more or alternative types of treatment.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

In addition to CBT, there may be other holistic options to manage your pain without drugs. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is one such option sometimes used without drugs. Nearly 45 percent [PDF 239KB] of service members use CAM to treat problems like arthritis or back, neck and joint pain. Some forms of CAM include:

Remember, reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants, call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat.

Additional Resources


Clinical research; reports from Veterans Affairs Medical Center add new data to findings in clinical trials and studies (Replication of a cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain group protocol by therapists in training). Psychology & Psychiatry Journal; Atlanta (Oct. 10, 2015): 3595.

Davis, M., Zautra, A., Wolf, L., Tennen, H. and Yeung, E. (2015) Mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral interventions for chronic pain: Differential effects on daily pain reactivity and stress reactivity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(1), 24-35, doi:10.1037/a0038200

DeCarvalho, L.  (2016, Feb. 23). The experience of chronic pain and PTSD: A guide for health care providers. Department of Veterans Affairs: National Center for PTSD.

Denneson, L, Corson, K. and Dobscha, S. (2011). Complementary and alternative medicine use among veterans with chronic noncancer pain. [PDF 239KB] Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, 48(9), 1119-1128, doi: 10.1682/JRRD.2010.12.0243

Goertz, C., Marriott, B., Finch, M., Bray, R., Williams, T., Hourani, L., Hadden, L., Colleran, H. and Jonas, W. (2013). Military report more complementary and alternative medicine use than civilians. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19(6), 509-517. doi: 10.1089/acm.2012.0108

Kerns, R. and Heapy, A. (2016). Advances in pain management for veterans: Current status of research and future directions. Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, 53(1), vii-x. doi: 10.1682/jrrd.2015.10.0196  

Murphy, J., McKellar, J., Raffa, S., Clark, M., Kerns, R. and Karlin, B. (n.d.). Cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain among veterans: Therapist manual. [PDF 3.9MB] Washington, DC: Department of Veterans Affairs.

Okifuji, A. and Turk, D. (2015). Behavioral and Cognitive-Behavioral Approaches to Treating Patients with Chronic Pain: Thinking Outside the Pill Box. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapies, 33, 218-238, doi: 10.1007/s10942-015-0215-x

Simmonds, M. J., Finley, E. P., Vale, S., Pugh, M. J., & Turner, B. J. (2015). A Qualitative Study of Veterans on Long-Term Opioid Analgesics: Barriers and Facilitators to Multimodality Pain Management. Pain Medicine, 16(4), 726-732, doi: 10.1111/pme.12626