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9 Things You Should Know About Chronic Pain and Complementary Health Approaches

Chronic pain is a common problem, affecting one of every five U.S. adults. Some complementary health approaches have been shown to have modest benefits for chronic pain, but the amount and quality of evidence varies for different approaches and pain conditions.

  1. In general, research on complementary approaches for fibromyalgia is preliminary. However, there’s encouraging evidence that practices such as tai chi, qigong, massage therapy, acupuncture, and balneotherapy (spa therapy) may help relieve some fibromyalgia symptoms.

  2. Some mind and body practices, such as relaxation training, biofeedback, acupuncture, and spinal manipulation, may be helpful for headaches and migraines. Preliminary studies suggest that certain dietary supplements, including the herb feverfew, the vitamin riboflavin, the mineral magnesium, and coenzyme Q10, may be helpful for migraines. The herb butterbur seems to reduce migraine frequency, but serious concerns have been raised about its possible liver toxicity.

  3. There haven’t been many large, well-designed studies on complementary approaches for irritable bowel syndrome, but some evidence suggests that peppermint oil may have modest, short-term benefits and that gut-directed hypnotherapy may be a helpful form of psychological therapy. Probiotics have been studied for irritable bowel syndrome, but the current evidence does not clearly show which types of probiotics might be helpful.

  4. There’s low- or moderate-quality evidence that a variety of psychological or physical complementary health approaches, including acupuncture, electromyography biofeedback, low-level laser therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, progressive muscle relaxation, spinal manipulation, tai chi, and yoga, may be helpful for chronic low-back pain. Topical preparations of the herb cayenne may also help to relieve low-back pain.

  5. There’s evidence that acupuncture can be helpful for neck pain. Spinal manipulation might also be helpful, but much of the research on this practice has been of low quality. Massage therapy may be helpful for neck pain, but the effects may only last for a short time.

  6. Tai chi may be helpful for pain from osteoarthritis of the knee or hip. Other complementary approaches that have shown promise for osteoarthritis include acupuncture and yoga. 

  7. Psychological and physical approaches—such as relaxation, mindfulness meditation, tai chi, and yoga—may be beneficial additions to rheumatoid arthritis treatment plans, but they may do more to improve other aspects of patients’ health (such as quality of life) than to relieve pain. For example, tai chi may improve mood and overall physical function, and mindfulness meditation may improve patients’ ability to cope with pain. Dietary supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids, gamma-linolenic acid, or the herb thunder god vine may help relieve some rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

  8. Acupuncture, reflexology, or acupressure may be helpful for cancer pain, and acupuncture has also been shown to relieve joint pain caused by treatment with aromatase inhibitors. Hypnotherapy may reduce pain associated with procedures used in cancer diagnosis or treatment. Massage therapy may be helpful for patients who have pain during palliative or hospice care.

  9. As with any treatment, it is important to consider safety before using complementary health approaches. If you’re considering a complementary approach to help manage your chronic pain, talk with your health care providers first. You can find more information on NCCIH’s website about the safe use of complementary health products and practices.