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New Analysis of Data Reveals Americans’ Use of Complementary Health Approaches for Musculoskeletal Pain

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American adults with some form of musculoskeletal pain are more likely to use complementary health approaches than people without one of these pain disorders, according to data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). However, the research also pointed out that some people with musculoskeletal pain disorders who use complementary health approaches don’t necessarily use them to treat their pain. The findings were published in National Health Statistics Report.

The NHIS is an annual study in which tens of thousands of Americans are interviewed about their health- and illness-related experiences. Information on the use of complementary health approaches in the past 12 months was collected from 34,525 American adults, while the information on musculoskeletal pain disorders was obtained from a study sample of 19,236 adults who reported having one or more individual musculoskeletal pain disorders in the past 3 months. Musculoskeletal pain disorders that were examined in the analysis include low-back pain, sciatica, neck pain, non-arthritis joint pain, arthritic conditions, and other musculoskeletal pain disorders not included in any of the previous categories.

Here are some of the findings from the analysis:

  • More than half of American adults (125 million) had a musculoskeletal pain disorder in 2012.
  • More than 40% of people with a musculoskeletal pain disorder used a complementary health approach. This was significantly higher than use by people without a musculoskeletal pain disorder (24%). However, only 14% of those with musculoskeletal pain used a complementary approach to actually treat their pain.
  • For people with musculoskeletal pain, use of any complementary health approach was highest among those with neck pain (50.6%). Fairly close behind were those with low-back pain (43%), sciatica (41.9%), and arthritic conditions (40.9%). Use by people with other types of musculoskeletal problems was 46.2%.
  • Nearly 25% of people with musculoskeletal pain used natural products (nonvitamin, nonmineral dietary supplements, and special diets), which was nearly twice as high as use among people without musculoskeletal pain (13.4%). However, fewer than 4% used natural products to specifically treat the musculoskeletal pain disorder.
  • More than 15% of people with musculoskeletal pain used a mind and body approach (e.g., biofeedback, meditation, or yoga) for any reason. This was nearly one-third higher than use among people without musculoskeletal pain. However, fewer than 2% used mind and body approaches to specifically treat their musculoskeletal pain disorder.
  • The use of practitioner-based approaches for any reason by people with musculoskeletal pain (18.2%) was nearly three times as high as use by those without musculoskeletal pain (6.9%).

Findings from this analysis add to the evidence about the use of complementary health approaches for pain conditions by Americans. The researchers noted that the relative high use of practitioner-based approaches seen in the analysis adds to previous research that has shown that some American adults use complementary approaches for treatment despite a lack of health insurance coverage for their practitioner visits.


  • Clarke TC, Nahin RL, Barnes PM, Stussman BJ. Use of complementary health approaches for musculoskeletal pain disorders among adults: United States, 2012. National health statistics reports; no. 98. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.

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Publication Date: October 12, 2016