Guide to Complementary Medicine

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in three Americans have tried some form of nonconventional, or complementary, medicine.

While complementary medicine is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, there is still a great deal of confusion about the benefits—and limitations—of this unique category of treatment options. U.S. Pain Foundation, the leading advocacy organization for people with chronic pain, believes in access to and education about all available pain-relief options, including complementary medicine.

What does the research say?

Complementary medicine research is ongoing and necessary, with efficacy and safety determinations that may vary based on the therapy. Some therapies, like massage, yoga and mindfulness have been proven effective in managing certain pain conditions.

When considering alternative treatments, U.S. Pain encourages you to be open-minded but cautious. Look for high-quality clinical studies into specific treatments. The larger the study, the better quality the data. You can find many of these studies online on databases like, by asking a librarian at your local library or by talking with your clinicians.

Is complementary medicine covered by insurance?

Sometimes even therapies that have been scientifically proven to provide relief may not be covered by insurance companies. Coverage can depend on the therapy type, the type of practitioner providing therapy, the insurance plan and the specifics of the condition.

U.S. Pain Foundation’s advocacy team is working hard to encourage insurers to provide better coverage of alternative treatments. If a therapy you want to try is not covered, you have a few options:

1) See if a note from your doctor requesting a medically necessary therapy might persuade your insurer.

2) Ask your therapist whether he or she might charge you on a sliding scale or give you a discount for paying out of pocket.

3) Investigate whether an in-network, accredited clinician can provide the services (some conventional physical therapists, for example, offer aqua therapy, biofeedback or massage).

Should I try complementary medicine?

While the scientific verdict is still out on many complementary treatments, it’s worth exploring therapies that interest you. For one thing, each person is different; what might not work for one person with pain might provide enormous relief for another. Secondly, many complementary therapies—especially things like yoga, mindfulness and massage—have fewer side effects and long-term risks than other conventional treatment options. Do your research, talk to your doctor and consider giving complementary medicine a try.


Acupuncture, common in Chinese medicine, involves inserting thin needles into certain points of the body. Traditional Chinese practitioners believe acupuncture balances the flow of energy or life force, known as qi or chi. Western practitioners see it as a way to stimulate nerves and muscles in a way that promotes pain relief and healing.

Acupressure is very similar to acupuncture, but instead of needles, practitioners use their hands to apply pressure to trigger points in the body. Because it is very gentle and noninvasive, acupressure may be a good choice for someone who is uncomfortable with needles. The therapy focuses on releasing tension, increasing circulation and promoting relaxation.

Aromatherapy uses plant materials and aromatic plant oils to promote well-being; different smells are believed to provide different effects. Aromatherapy can be applied topically (as a lotion or oil) or inhaled (via an oil diffuser or scented candle). It is often used in conjunction with massage.

Art therapy
Art therapy is a creative method of expression used as a therapeutic technique. An art therapist works with a client—using many kinds of materials—to initiate a creative process that elicits feelings and realizations. The therapist helps the client process those feelings, draw conclusions, develop appropriate actions and more.

Biofeedback uses sensitive electronic instruments to measure bodily processes and then feeds back that information to the patients to help them learn to control their physiology. Several types of biofeedback—including muscle tension (EMG), temperature (blood flow), heart rate variability (HRV) and brain wave (neurofeedback)—have been shown to be helpful in reducing chronic pain. Biofeedback is often paired with coaching in relaxation techniques.

Chiropractic care
A chiropractor’s main objective is to realign and manipulate the spine and neck in a way that relieves pain, promotes healing and improves overall function. There are many different styles of chiropractic care, and chiropractors use a wide range of strategies, techniques and products as part of treatment.

Diet and nutrition
A well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet can improve overall well-being; that is widely accepted. But many believe specific diets—like anti-inflammatory, gluten-free or plant-based diets—may help reduce pain, whether by reducing fatigue, inflammation or other problems. Trained nutritionists and dieticians can help you identify the best foods to eat.

Herbs and vitamins
Herbs and vitamins can play a role in a healthy lifestyle, with each herb and vitamin providing different effects and benefits. Herbalists or osteopathic doctors can recommend specific herbs and vitamins tailored to your health needs.

Hypnotists use an altered, relaxed state of mind to silence or calm thoughts and help the client focus on becoming more aware of emotions and feelings that otherwise would be difficult to access. The purpose of this therapy is to increase brain communication to and control over parts of the body.

One of the oldest healing arts, massage involves the rubbing and kneading of muscles and joints, especially to relieve tension or pain. There are many types of massage, including Swedish, deep tissue, trigger point, hot stone, self-massage and more.

Meditation and mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness techniques quiet the nervous system and lower stress, which decreases muscle tension and can lead to lower pain levels. There are many ways to practice mindfulness and many different styles of meditation.

Music therapy
Music therapy uses music and sound to address the physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of an individual. Treatment includes creating, singing, moving to and/or listening to music.

Reiki is a Japanese healing technique. It is based on the idea that an unseen “life-force energy” flows through us. If one’s life-force energy is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress.

Reflexology involves applying gentle pressure and massage-like techniques to hands or feet. Reflexologists believe that specific zones on the feet and hands correspond with parts and systems of the body and that manipulating these zones can promote healing throughout the body.

Tai chi
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice based on simple, slow movements accompanied by deep breathing and focus. It can be done anywhere and requires no equipment. Tai chi can help with mobility, flexibility, balance and relaxation. Because it is extremely low-impact, Tai chi is very popular with older adults.

Water therapy
Water therapy, or aqua therapy, is designed to improve or sustain gait, muscle strength and endurance, balance, agility, function, coordination, flexibility, function, and body mechanics and posture. Therapists can tailor treatments for each patient using certain underwater exercises, devices or equipment designed for water.

Yoga is a system of physical postures, breathing techniques and sometimes meditation that can help improve mobility and strength and reduce stress and pain. It is derived from Hindu spiritual tradition but is often practiced independently in Western cultures as a way of mindful exercise and stretching. Yoga has different variations that correspond with levels of ability and one’s goal for practice.


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