Alternative therapies for chronic pain are beginning to gain widespread acceptance as a respected, holistic way to approach a comprehensive pain management plan. Not every therapy works for every pain condition, and there are some important considerations before beginning any alternative therapy.

Common alternative therapies include:

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is the ancient Chinese practice of inserting hair-thin needles into specific points on a person’s body to stimulate the flow of energy through the body’s meridians (energy channels). The effects of acupuncture can be intensified by applying a mild electrical current to the needle (called electro-acupuncture).
  • Chiropractic care: Chiropractic care primarily involves spinal manipulation to increase proper alignment. Spinal adjustments are generally done manually, but there are other methods that utilize special tables and techniques to bring length and space to the spine.
  • Massage: There are many different types of massage that can be classified as alternatives therapies, including shiatsu and Swedish massage.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback measures the body’s physical response to stress and then teaches the patient how to use breath and visualization to control the physical response.
  • Yoga: Therapeutic yoga can involve everything from relaxing, restorative postures to more active, muscle-building sequences that still concentrate on proper alignment and breathing.
  • Supplements: Supplements can include anything from herbal teas and tinctures to vitamins and minerals in higher doses.
  • Meditation: Meditation can be as simple as taking deep, even breaths or more involved like guided imagery and more goal-oriented focus on particular areas of the body.

Other types of alternative therapies include Feldenkrais, t’ai chi, qi gong, aromatherapy, and reflexology.

Alternative therapies for different pain conditions

Not all alternative therapies are recommended for every type of chronic pain.

For low back pain, the most common and successful therapies are also the ones that seem to have the most research behind them. Acupuncture is by far one of the most clinically successful and research-proven therapy, but chiropractic care has also been found to help relieve low back pain. Yoga is a great way to rehabilitate and build the muscles of the back and the core to improve support of the spine and prevent a reoccurrence.

Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis that occurs naturally as joints age, is also helped by acupuncture. Slow and steady exercise such as t’ai chi can help relieve pain, and joint supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin are most commonly used for this type of chronic pain.

Mindfulness meditation and omega-3 fatty acids, along with linolenic acid and the herb thunder god vine may prove effective in relief of rheumatoid arthritis. Dietary changes that eliminate inflammatory foods (e.g., sugar, wheat, and dairy) and add anti-inflammatory foods and spices (e.g., cherries, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon) can help relieve pain associated with this autoimmune disorder as well.

Headache and neck pain can be helped with biofeedback, acupuncture, and chiropractic. There are dietary supplements for headache that include feverfew and butterbur, but these are less effective for tight muscles in the neck. Meditation and relaxing breathing exercises may also relieve stress-induced head and neck pain.

Fibromyalgia is one of the most difficult to diagnose and treat pain conditions, and alternative therapies also seem to have limited success. One of the more successful therapies may be mindfulness meditation. This approach does not lessen the pain so much as it helps the patient cope with and change their perception of it.

When deciding if alternative therapies are right for you, there are some important considerations.

Drug interactions

While herbal remedies and supplements may seem harmless, there are some that have the potential for serious adverse side effects.

A 2006 study of 404 patients in the emergency room found that adverse, clinically significant interactions occurred in as many as 19% of patients. These interactions can include anything from reducing the effectiveness of the life-saving prescription drug to causing spontaneous bleeding.

It is crucial to tell your doctor about all of the medicines you are taking, including herbal remedies, over-the-counter medicines, and prescriptions. While many herbal remedies are innocuous and easily taken with prescription drugs, it’s not worth taking the chance.

Do your research

No matter what type of alternative therapies you are considering, take the time to do some research. You may find that the therapy you are considering is not the best choice for you while uncovering new possibilities. Proactive patients who are involved in and educated about their own care are often more confident in their treatment plans.

Qualified practitioners

Depending on the alternative therapy, licensing requirements for practitioners will vary widely. Before starting an alternative therapy, take the time to get recommendations from your doctor, friends, and family. Call the practitioner and ask them about their education, qualifications, and experience. Many practitioners will schedule a brief in-person consultation to answer any questions or address any concerns you might have.

A bonus to getting a doctor’s recommendation for an alternative therapist may be that the therapist is willing to work with your insurance company.

Supplement, don’t replace

Therapies or products that are not research-based should not be used to replace your current treatment for chronic pain. Likewise, delaying treatment for pain or other medical condition and simply taking a supplement may end up making your condition worsen. Alternative therapies can be highly effective, but they should not replace or postpone a visit to the doctor first.

As always, before making any changes to your treatment plan, including incorporating alternative therapies, talk with your doctor. Recent research has shown that although most pain patients routinely utilize chiropractic care, massage, and acupuncture, many of them do not discuss this with their doctors. This lack of communication is not a helpful way to approach your chronic pain treatment. Take some time to discuss your ideas with your doctor and get some feedback before utilizing any alternative therapies.

Have you tried alternative therapies for chronic pain? What was the result?


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