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Alternative pain management techniques

written by Vidya Sury September 3, 2010

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It could be that medications are too expensive or often ineffective, or that people are wary about becoming drug-dependent.  Whatever the reason, a growing number of people are preferring complementary or alternative medicine to manage pain. Pain is probably the biggest complaint with people who are looking at alternative treatments.

Here are some of the most popular alternative medicine therapies that have been found effective in treating and relieving pain:


This ancient Chinese healing art has been around for at least 2,000 years. The practice involves inserting hair-thin needles into various points on the skin in an attempt to regulate movement within the body’s meridian system. Numerous studies have confirmed acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating pain.


This pain management therapy uses scents from essential plant oils that are either applied to the skin or inhaled. Aromatherapy for health purposes dates back thousands of years, playing an important role in the medical systems of the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. Studies have shown a decrease in pain symptoms in people with rheumatoid arthritis, headaches, and cancer who use aromatherapy.


Biofeedback is a pain management technique that teaches the patient to consciously affect normally involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, muscle tension, and blood pressure. The idea is that by becoming aware of these functions, and specifically how they correlate to pain, you can adjust them in accordance with pain symptoms. Biofeedback helps decrease pain by helping the patient relax, which in turn reduces physical symptoms that can be worsened by stress. Electromyography, or EMG, measures muscle tension and is the type of biofeedback that has been shown to be most helpful in pain management.


Although it’s now a mainstream option, chiropractic is still technically considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine. Chiropractors look at the relationship between the structure and function of the body in order to decrease pain. The main focus is the spine, and most chiropractic visits involve adjustments that are designed to realign the body to promote self-healing. Chiropractic has been shown to be effective for a variety of pain syndromes, including lower back pain, neck pain, carpal tunnel, headaches, and sports injuries.


This complementary and alternative approach is used to promote relaxation and induce an altered state of consciousness. The resulting psychological shift is intended to help people gain control over their states of awareness, which theoretically can help them gain control over their physical body, including their pain symptoms. Research suggests that hypnosis can help reduce the need for pain medication by decreasing the anxiety that’s typically associated with pain.


Massage feels great, but it also is a time-tested healing method for various kinds of pain. Through manipulation of the body’s soft tissues, massage therapy influences the muscles, circulation, and lymphatic and nervous systems. Several clinical studies have shown massage to be an effective pain management therapy. A recent review of multiple trials concluded that massage is beneficial for chronic lower back pain.

Relaxation Therapy

It is well documented that stress can worsen, or even cause, disease — and pain is no exception. When we’re stressed, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, which causes an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and a tensing of muscles. Over time, this can wreak havoc on our internal organs and musculoskeletal systems. A variety of relaxation techniques, including guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation, are used in medical settings to counteract these negative effects of stress. Studies have shown that patients who undergo relaxation therapy can experience a reduction in pain symptoms.

Tai Chi

Tai chi originated in China and is often referred to as a moving meditation. Practitioners of tai chi conduct a series of slow, gentle movements that are coordinated with deep breathing. This ancient martial art can be beneficial for emotional and physical ailments, including chronic pain. Tai chi is often prescribed as a complementary therapy to traditional pain management treatments such as medications, but it also is thought to provide preventive benefits against pain.

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