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Stress Management

November 2016

Have Chronic Pain? Medicine Isn’t Your Only Choice

Whether it’s another headache or a relentless sore back, pain is widespread. In a national survey of more than 100,000 people, more than half said they felt pain in the past 3 months. About 1 out of 10 reported suffering long-term (chronic) pain. In general, women and older adults tend to feel more pain.

Man and woman doing tai chi outdoors

To ease chronic discomfort, you may turn right away to medicine. But unconventional treatments may work, too. These include complementary methods like yoga and acupuncture.

Health experts recently looked at the strongest evidence for these types of treatments. They wanted to see how well they worked for some of the most common types of chronic pain, such as arthritis, headaches, and back or neck pain. Their review found the treatments below to be the most promising.


Acupuncture is  a type of Chinese medicine that uses small needles to ease pain. A practitioner sticks the needles into the skin at certain points on the body. High-quality studies suggest this treatment may be best for people with back pain or arthritis of the knee.


Yoga blends body movements, breathing techniques, and meditation to promote a healthier body and mind. It may be of most value to people who suffer from lower back pain.

Tai chi

Like yoga, tai chi focuses on the mind and body. It also combines movements with breathing and relaxation techniques. Studies point to its help with joint pain, specifically arthritis of the knee. An added bonus: It may also help with balance, and so prevent falls.

Massage therapy

Massage therapy uses pressure or rubbing to relax muscles. Strong evidence shows it may ease neck pain. But the relief may not last long. Repeated sessions may be needed for long-term pain control.

Relaxation techniques

There are many relaxation techniques. They include simple deep breathing exercises to more complex tactics like self-hypnosis. These methods may help with problems like anxiety and insomnia. But in terms of pain, they seem to best ease tension headaches and migraines. 

3 tips on choosing complementary care

If you are thinking about trying a complementary approach for chronic pain, follow these 3 tips. 

  • Talk with your healthcare provider first. Tell him or her about your interest in an alternative treatment. He or she can tell you how helpful it may be and whether it may interfere with any of your normal care, such as medicine.

  • Think safety. Many complementary treatments, such as yoga, are considered safe. But that may depend on your age, health, and other factors. Your healthcare provider can direct you to the best treatment.

  • Check on training and expertise. Treatments such as acupuncture or massage therapy are done by practitioners who need a license or a certificate. But standards can differ from state to state. Plus, some treatments, like tai chi, have no such regulations. Asking about training and experience can help you make a good choice.


Read more about complementary and alternative medicine.


Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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