Latest Advances in Treating Chronic Pain

Was this helpful?
Doctor at computer desk

Scientists continue to unlock the secrets of where pain resides in the brain—and why some aches turn chronic. These new steps in understanding pain have led doctors to develop new and different treatments, bringing relief to an increasing number of people coping with chronic pain.

TENS Units

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit is a small device that can be very effective in relieving pain. These devices are safe, non-invasive, and a great alternative or complement to pain medication. A TENS unit is connected to sticky pads, called electrodes, that you place on your skin. The TENS unit sends electrical impulses through the electrodes to interact with nerve pathways in your body, helping to modulate or suppress pain signals in the brain. In the past, TENS units were prescribed by a doctor, but in recent years, several over-the-counter products have become available.

Wired Acupuncture

One recent discovery: People with chronic pain often have lower levels of feel-good hormones called endorphins in their spinal fluid. Standard acupuncture—during which small, thin needles are inserted into certain points on the body—has been shown to increase endorphins. Doctors can now boost this effect by wiring the needles so they stimulate nerves with a delicate electrical charge.

Trigger Point Injections or Dry Needling

Using needles similar to acupuncture, these methods target tight bands of muscle that create pain in a region of the body. The technique has brought relief to people with pain in their pelvis, upper body, and other areas.

Off-Label Medications

Drugs such as opiates and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories have long been used to help manage pain. But they’re not the only drugs that can reduce the impact of pain on your life. Drugs developed and approved for other conditions can help relieve pain, too.

For instance, certain anti-seizure medications can calm irritated nerves that cause pain. Some drugs that traditionally treat mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, may help, too. The active ingredients in these medications interact with the same neurotransmitters that signal pain.

Botulinum Toxin

Though well known for their role in cosmetic surgery, botulinum toxin (Botox) can relax too-tight muscles, easing pain. Studies have shown they’re effective in treating tennis elbow, migraine, and some types of neck pain.

Pain Pumps

When you swallow a pill or receive an injection, medicine circulates in your body through your bloodstream. Devices called intrathecal drug delivery systems release medication directly into your spinal cord fluid instead. This may bring pain relief more quickly, as well as reduce the risk of unwanted side effects.

Most pain pumps release opioids, including morphine. Because this method is invasive and expensive, it’s often reserved for people whose pain has failed to respond to any other treatment.

Hyperbaric Oxygen

With this treatment, you’ll enter a pressurized chamber that increases the amount of oxygen in your tissues. Initially used to treat wounds, the technique has shown promise in people with chronic pain. However, much more research needs to be done to determine who can benefit and the safest protocols.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Resource Guide to Chronic Pain Treatment. American Chronic Pain Association.

  2. Mansour AR, et al. Brain white matter structural properties predict transition to chronic pain. Pain. 2013;154(10):2160-2168.

  3. NINDS Chronic Pain Information Page. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.    

  4. Kietrys DM, et al. Effectiveness of dry needling for upper-quarter myofascial pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 2013;43(9):620-634.

  5. Moldwin RM, et al. Myofascial trigger points of the pelvic floor: associations with urological pain syndromes and treatment strategies including injection therapy. Current Urology Reports. 2013;14(5):409-417.

  6. NIH-funded study suggests brain is hard-wired for chronic pain. National Institutes of Health.

  7. Pain Control: Support for People With Cancer. National Institutes of Health. National Cancer Institute.    

  8. Pain: Hope Through Research. National Institutes of Health. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.    

  9. Cagnie, B. Physiologic effects of dry needling. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2013;17(348).

  10. DeSantana JM, Walsh DM, Vance C, Rakel BA, Sluka KA. Effectiveness of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation for Treatment of Hyperalgesia and Pain. Current rheumatology reports. 2008;10(6):492-499.