Common Alternative Treatments for Chronic Pain

Acupuncture, Herbal Remedies, Massage, and Mind-Body Techniques

Sometimes conventional medicine—such as prescription medication—is not effective at treating chronic pain associated with certain medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. But some people living with chronic pain find relief with complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Complementary and integrative health practices, like yoga, massage therapy, and natural supplements, are common in the US. According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, 9.5% (21 million) adults said they practiced yoga, a stark increase from 2002, when only 5.1% said they practiced yoga.  

CAM treatments can be used with traditional medicine or as an alternative to it. However, as with other types of treatments, complementary and alternative medicine doesn't work for everyone the same way. You may need to try several CAM treatments—and perhaps several combinations of treatments—to determine what will work best for you," said Josephine P. Briggs, MD, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

From fibromyalgia to headaches to neck pain, CAM treatments have the potential to help alleviate your pain and other symptoms and to give you a better quality of life. Below is a sample of some of the most common CAM treatments.

Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice, uses fine needles—about the width of a strand of hair—that are inserted into various "acupuncture points" on the body to treat your pain.

Because the needles are so tiny, acupuncture doesn't hurt, but the needles are generally left in for up to 40 minutes. These needles aid in the healing process and can provide significant pain relief for people who have regular acupuncture sessions.

Acupuncture works to restore a healthy flow of an energy force called Chi (also known as Qi). This technique frees up your body's Chi channels, so energy can flow freely in the body, ultimately reducing your pain.

Herbal Remedies/Supplements
There are many conditions associated with chronic pain, so it’s hard to list all the possible herbal remedies that can help decrease your pain. Some popular supplements include fish oil (Omega 3/DHA, EPA Fatty Acids, glucosamine/chondroitin, probiotics/prebiotics, and melatonin).

To learn more about your specific condition causing your pain and the herbal remedies that can help alleviate it, you can research herbal remedies online. Check out the list of herbal remedies on the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Or, talk to an experienced doctor who is knowledgeable about herbal remedies.

You'll find that certain herbal remedies work well with certain conditions. Devil's claw and white willow bark, for example, can decrease the joint pain and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. And primrose and ginger may help ease chronic muscle pain associated with fibromyalgia.

But be careful when taking herbal remedies—some herbal remedies may interfere with prescription medications. That's why it's best to talk to your doctor before trying any herbal remedies. Be sure to carefully follow your doctor's directions.

Is it true that you can really rub away your pain with a massage? Many people with chronic pain turn to massage to ease their pain, reduce stress, and decrease anxiety and depression.

Massage therapists use their fingers and hands to press and manipulate your muscles and soft tissues. There are many massage techniques, but find the one that works for you: You may prefer a deep tissue massage to a hot stone massage, for example.

In general, massage is an excellent and effective way to relax your body, while relieving muscle inflammation and pain.

Mind-Body Techniques
The mind is a very powerful thing, and mind-body techniques can help you learn how to cope with your pain and other symptoms.Eight percent (18 million) of adults reported using meditation in 2012. Meditation also appears to have increased in popularity amongst children, where 1.6% (927,000) reported using it 2012, up from 202,000 more than in 2007. 

There are many forms of meditation, like Mantra meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Transcendental meditation, and so on. The practice has become more common outside of its religious context, though, as past studies have found it helps manage chronic pain, improve mood, reduce stress, and even treat anxiety disorders.

Meditation is one type of mind-body technique that helps you manage stress by clearing your mind and focusing on what signals your body is sending you. Taking a couple of minutes each day to sit back and reflect can bring you an overall sense of well-being and inner peace.


As noted, yoga surged in its popularity over the last decade. Yoga also seems to have become more prevalent amongst US children.

Yoga is a meditative movement practice originating from ancient India, and it's believed to have numerous health benefits. Besides reducing stress and improving fitness, the practice has been shown to reduce discomfort in people suffering from low back pain and even improve quality of life in cancer survivors.

Another beneficial mind-body technique—yoga teaches you that your breath is the bridge that links your mind and body. Using inhalation and exhalation properly with certain poses called asanas, you can achieve a deep sense of relaxation, not to mention flexibility and strength.

If you're considering complementary and alternative medicine, have a conversation with your doctor first. Remember, you may have to try several CAM treatments—or perhaps a blend of CAM treatments—to figure out which one(s) will work best to alleviate your pain and other symptoms.

Updated on: 08/15/16
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