Complementary Approaches to Tackling Pain

By Greg Breining, Contributing Writer
9/22/2012 10:28:26 AM

Millions of Americans suffer from long-lasting pain. Pain from joints, back, overworked muscles and headaches costs U.S. businesses more than $61 billion each year in absenteeism and lost productivity.

Conventional medicine is often only partly effective against chronic pain. As a result, many people turn to complementary and alternative therapies that are now described by the National Institutes of Health to include various treatments and practices. A survey of more than 400 patients at a clinic for chronic pain revealed that nearly 40 percent tried one of these therapies.

But are complementary and alternative treatments effective? Studies say they may provide relief for some ailments. For example, the American Pain Society and American College of Physicians recommends that doctors should consider complementary treatments for patients whose low-back pain does not improve with self-care. These treatments include spinal manipulation, acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga, cognitive-behavioral therapy and progressive relaxation.

Here's a discussion of these treatments and the research on their effectiveness.


Acupuncture is an ancient practice of traditional Chinese medicine. It is the stimulation of the skin usually with needles, but in modern times, with electricity. In the United States, it will often be used with conventional medicine like analgesic drugs and physical therapy. More than 3 million Americans have reported trying acupuncture in the previous year.

According to Chinese medicine theory, acupuncture regulates the flow of the vital energy known through body "meridians". The biomechanical aspects of acupuncture are unclear, but research continues. Neuroimaging is being used to determine how acupuncture affects the brain.

Studies suggest acupuncture shows promise for easing chronic low-back pain. It may also be effective for osteoarthritis of the knee. However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, "differences in the design, size and protocol of the studies make it hard to draw any definite conclusions from the body of research." Likewise, there is some evidence that acupuncture can ease neck pain, but studies are limited by small samples.

Acupuncture has been tried as a treatment for other painful conditions, including:

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