Non-Pharmacological Pain Management & Nursing

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

No one wants to experience pain, but if you do, there are non-pharmacological ways to help manage pain. In this lesson, we will learn about different ways nurses can aid in pain relief.


Pain is physical discomfort caused by an illness or injury. Pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong. Pain can greatly impact a person's daily life, and poor pain control can even delay healing.

Adequate pain relief has become a high priority in healthcare settings. Hospitals are measuring patients' satisfaction with their pain control, and pain assessment has even been termed 'the fifth vital sign.' Healthcare workers will ask you to rate your level of pain with nearly every interaction.

Pain is a subjective report of the person experiencing it. It is not necessarily something a healthcare worker can see; therefore, it is important to remember that pain is what the patient says it is. Also important to remember is that pain can look differently from one patient to the next.

Your doctor may prescribe pain medication to help relieve the pain, but there are additional strategies to aid in pain relief that your nurse can assist with or educate you on. Let's look at some of those now.

Non-pharmacological pain management

Non-pharmacological pain management refers to interventions that do not involve medications. Medications may serve an important part, but non-pharmacological interventions may help just as much and sometimes even more than medications. In fact, utilizing both pharmacological and non-pharmacological methods shows the most benefit for pain control.

Common non-pharmacological interventions include the use of ice, rest, and elevation. If you twist your ankle and it's painful and swollen, applying an ice pack intermittently can help reduce the swelling and relieve pain. Combine that with rest and elevation for even better results. Staying off your ankle will aid in healing, and elevating the leg will also help with the swelling, which could relieve some of the pain associated with the injury.

Most of us can understand the pain associated with a strained muscle. The use of heat and massage can be helpful in relieving the pain of a strained neck or back muscle. Now, let's look at some interventions that may not be as common.

Splinting is a great way to help manage pain, too. If you have a broken rib or have had abdominal surgery, holding a pillow firmly in that area while moving, sneezing, or deep breathing can help!

Distraction can be an effective way to manage pain. Distraction is shifting your attention to something else, thereby shifting it away from the pain. Anything can be used for distraction -- you just need to find what works best for you. Some examples include listening to music, watching TV, listening to audio books, or using an app that you enjoy on your tablet or phone. Even counting, drawing or coloring, doing crafts or constructing things can divert your attention off of your pain. Reading, writing, walking and talking are some more ideas, or you may try tapping your fingers or using massage to distract your mind. The next time you are experiencing pain, try one of these methods to distract you from your pain.

Guided imagery is another non-pharmacological intervention used to aid in pain relief. Your nurse can help lead you through guided imagery to engage all of your senses and reach a state of relaxation. Make the room conducive to this exercise by dimming the lights and providing a quiet area with some soft music in the background. The nurse will ask you to close your eyes and take some deep breaths to help you relax. She will give you verbal prompts to engage your imagination and senses, such as asking you to visualize your favorite place. The more details you can imagine, the more effective this will be. Think about what you see, what you feel, what you smell and what you taste. The goal is to take you to this place in your imagination.

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