In the search for relief, many chronic pain sufferers turn to so-called alternative or complementary therapies. Some may be helpful. Others not so much. Here’s the latest evidence for some of the leading alternative therapies—and how they fit into a treatment plan for people living with chronic pain:
One of the best-studied pain therapies is acupuncture, the ancient Chinese practice that involves inserting small needles into particular points on the body. The evidence is mixed. A 2013 review of research concluded that acupuncture does appear to ease low back pain and improve function, although the benefits are short lasting. But a 2012 study that looked at acupuncture for chronic knee pain found it worked no better than a placebo. Acupuncture is considered generally safe, so it may be worth giving it a try. To read more about acupuncture and pain relief, see The Finer Points of Acupuncture.
Getting a massage makes almost anyone feel better immediately afterwards. But does massage offer lasting relief from chronic pain? When researchers in 2015 combed available studies on low back pain, they reported that the evidence offered “very little confidence” that massage offered lasting benefits for low back pain. Still, short-term relief is worth something. Massage is considered generally safe. But if you decide to give it a try, be sure your massage therapist is aware of your health conditions.
A variety of meditation techniques focus the mind and, in the process, may ease the stress and anxiety associated with chronic pain. One of the most studied techniques is called mindfulness meditation, which involves focusing on your thoughts and sensations in the present moment. When researchers from the Copenhagen Multidisciplinary Pain Center in Denmark studied 109 patients with chronic pain, they found that mindfulness meditation improved several pain measures, including quality of life and the sense of being able to manage and control pain.
Yoga is the traditional mind and body practice that combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. Evidence from a variety of studies shows yoga may ease chronic pain and help pain sufferers remain physically active. According to the NCCIH, yoga may work by countering the effects of chronic pain on the brain. Yoga is regarded as safe for most people. However, if you have serious health conditions you may need to modify or avoid certain yoga poses. Talk to your doctor before starting yoga. And make sure your yoga instructor knows about your health conditions.
Glucosamine and chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are produced in the human body and are involved in the production of cartilage that cushions joints. But there’s no solid evidence that the supplements—usually made from shellfish shells and cow bone—help ease arthritis pain. A 2015 Australian study compared chronic pain sufferers taking glucosamine and chondroitin with others taking a placebo. The dietary supplement increased the space between joints, but study participants reported the same level of pain as those taking a placebo. This matches the results of earlier studies, which found that although the supplements slightly reduced cartilage loss, they did not ease pain or improve function more than placebo.
Other herbal supplements
A 2014 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine reported that a combination of turmeric, Devil’s claw, and bromelian offered measurable relief to some patients with chronic arthritis pain. However, these studies were small, and most did not compare the herbs to placebo. Other herbal products have been shown to have serious side effects, including Tripterygium wilfordii, or "thunder god vine," which is sometimes used for rheumatoid arthritis pain. For up-to-date information about the safety and efficacy of herbal supplements, check out the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.