Anyone who has ever experienced chronic pain knows how debilitating it can be. Yet the most commonly recommended conventional medical solution—prescription opioid painkillers—is turning out to be worse than the problem. Opioids may stop the pain, but at a high price: growing numbers of deaths due to opioid overdose and higher rates of addiction and misuse.

As a medical discipline that emphasizes a holistic approach and natural treatments, naturopathic medicine offers safe and effective alternatives to highly addictive drugs for managing chronic pain. Licensed naturopathic doctors are educated at four-year, post-graduate medical schools to start with non-drug approaches to chronic pain management, and use opioid painkillers as a last resort.

Naturopathic doctors are also trained to develop personalized pain management treatment plans. These plans take into account each individual’s lifestyle, nutrition, work and leisure activities, current and past stressors, and relevant previous injuries—in other words, the root causes of each person’s pain and all its manifestations. The plans use various combinations of dietary recommendations and nutritional supplements along with botanical medicines to help reduce inflammation and the pain it causes. Exercise, physical rehabilitation, and mind-body approaches that are known to reduce perception of pain are also included in the plans.

In addition, naturopathic doctors recognize the value of working closely with conventional and alternative medical providers and will make appropriate referrals for further diagnostic work-up, treatment support, or surgical intervention as indicated. In turn, a growing number of conventional medical doctors refer patients and colleagues looking for a fresh perspective for difficult-to-treat chronic pain to naturopathic doctors.

Naturopathic doctors play an important role in the opioid wars

Along with medical professionals from other disciplines, naturopathic doctors are actively engaged in collaborative efforts to solve America’s opioid problem. This includes participating in working groups to develop better pain management practices and modify national prescribing habits to limit the overuse of opioids. One example is the policy brief for the PAINS project, “Never-Only Opioids: The Imperative for Early Use of Non-Pharmacological Approaches and Practitioners in Pain Care.” Naturopathic doctors played a leading role in the development and dissemination of the brief.

In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration also released guidelines recommending that doctors get information about chiropractic care and acupuncture as therapies that might help patients avoid prescription opioids. For more information about acupuncture and chronic pain, click here.

The AANP and the INM would like to acknowledge Len Wisneski, MD, FACP, and Holly Lucille, ND, RN, for their contributions to the content of this FAQ.