While most Western health practitioners have been slow to come around, today many healthcare professionals are recommending alternative therapies, along with more conventional therapies, for chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.
About Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine
Many people have bandied these terms about interchangeably. Rather, there are some very distinct differences. “Complementary medicine” is when non-conventional treatments are used in conjunction with Western medicine to restore health.
“Alternative medicine” is treatment outside of, and most relevantly, instead of, allopathic (Western) treatment. You may think your doctor will cringe when you mention “alternative medicine” instead of pharmaceuticals and surgery.
The truth is, many physicians prescribe “alternative medicine.” If you’re overweight, your doctor probably will prescribe a change of diet first. She won’t prescribe diet pills and lap band surgery on the first visit. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor will probably suggest either exercise or stress relief strategies before prescribing medication.
Increasing numbers of doctors are also recommending alternative medical therapies to their patients. These include yoga, meditation, massage, and even visits to a chiropractor.
A List of Alternative Medicine Types
Complementary and Alternative Medicine is referred to as “CAM” therapies. Many health care professionals use the term “integrative medicine” to avoid confusion.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health has divided CAM therapies into two classes:
“1. Mind and body practices, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation, movement therapies, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation (chiropractic), tai chi and qi gong, yoga, healing touch, and hypnotherapy.
2. Natural products, including probiotics, herbs, and vitamins and minerals usually sold as dietary supplements.”
A Breakdown of Alternative Therapies
Wise people through the ages have remarked on how our mental health affects our physical health. As a result, people have been using mental techniques to treat chronic pain for millennia.
- Meditation: Focusing on a specific object or process to calm the mind.
- Guided imagery: Visualization for relaxation or on a health problem in order to influence the outcome.
- Biofeedback: Becoming aware of body processes with vitals biofeedback machinery.
- Relaxation: Intentional releasing of tension through the body.
- Energy Medicine: Based on the theory that the body has its only flow of energy — “chi” in Chinese medicine. Practitioners use this energy to heal in techniques like Reiki. Additionally, they use strength testing to find supplements and find allergies.
- Acupuncture: Manipulates the effect of chi on the body by using needles or pressure along body meridians.
- Acupressure: Similar to acupuncture, but uses finger pressure instead of needles.
- Reiki: The practitioner moves her hands over the energy fields of the patient’s body to increase chi and affect balance.
Movement-based therapies include physical exercises for pain since strengthening muscles helps support joints and improve posture. It also releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers.
- Physical therapy: Strengthens muscles and loosens ligaments and joints.
- Yoga: Meditative stretching and posing that increases strength and flexibility.
- Pilates: A resistance exercise that strengthens and lengthens muscles.
- Tai chi: A meditative exercise that improves balance.
- Qigong: Similar to tai chi, and thought to balance chi throughout the body.
Bodywork includes therapies where the practitioner uses a hands-on technique to improve health.
- Massage: This can ease muscle spasms, providing pain relief. It can also improve lymphatic flow and provide relaxation.
- Chiropractic: Spinal manipulation to returns skeletal alignment to optimal when misaligned by stress or injury.
- Osteopathy: Similar to chiropractic, although osteopaths have full medical training in allopathic treatments as well.
Nutritional and Herbal Supplementation
Changes in diet can improve chronic pain. In addition, reducing intake of inflammatory-inducing foods can ease arthritis and other painful conditions. There are also naturally derived substances that can improve symptoms.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Fish oil and flaxseed are known to reduce inflammation.
- Ginger: Used for arthritis.
- Turmeric: Used for rheumatoid arthritis.
- MSM: Methylsulfonylmethane is a mineral that increases cartilage, skin, and bone tissue.
- White Willow Bark: A known painkiller and is the natural precursor of the modern aspirin.
Holistic Lifestyle Changes:
Some patients find that lifestyle changes improve outcomes. Along with receiving treatment, adequate rest and mild exercise can reduce pain. Coping strategies to reduce triggers and prioritize life’s necessities can help, too. A positive atmosphere supports treatments like massage and meditation.
- Sleep Hygiene: Create the right sleep environment to get adequate rest.
- Positive Environment: Insist on a positive environment with proper accommodations and flexible schedules.
- Healthy Relationships: Dealing with family, friends, and business associates should focus on cooperation.
- Exercise: Daily activity is good for mental and physical health.
Alternative Medicine as a Response to the Opioid Crisis
It seems the words “opioid crisis” are plastered all over the news every night; it’s no wonder that sufferers are looking for alternatives. No one wants to become an addict.
Pain experts have recently advocated that CAM therapies be added to health insurance coverage. As a result, doctors can ensure addiction-free pain management. The Academy of Integrative Pain Management has taken on the battle at their 28th annual meeting in 2017. During the event, AIPM President W. Clay Jackson, MD said:
“We have a dual health crisis in this country. We have a crisis of overprescription of opioids but undertreatment of chronic pain.”
He notes that, because insurance isn’t covering these alternative medicine therapies, chronic pain patients are paying out of pocket for these safer treatments.
“These patients are not necessarily looking for opioid treatment, or even pharmacological treatment. They just want relief from their pain.”
Best Alternative Therapies for Chronic Pain
Farshad M. Ahadian, MD, clinical professor of anesthesiology, University of California, San Diego, presented at the AIPM conference in fall 2017:
“I think it’s fair to say that acupuncture is here to stay. It’s going to be a permanent addition to our tool box.”
A December 2017 study examined acupuncture against other alternative medicine treatments like spinal manipulation (chiropractic) and massage, as a result, they found strong evidence that acupuncture substantially reduces pain.
A 2007 study performed at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine proved that naturopathic care was effective in treating chronic lower back pain. A group of postal workers was divided into two groups. Those who received naturopathic care received dietary counseling and deep breathing techniques, along with acupuncture. The other group received physiotherapy alone. The naturopathic treatment resulted in less back pain, higher quality of life, and increased flexibility. Additionally, they even lost some excess weight.
Chronic Pain Conditions and Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies that Work
Lower Back Pain
Research into acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage seems to have found these treatments beneficial for lower back pain. The American College of Physicians/American Pain Society recommended these techniques in 2007. They also recommended other alternative medicine therapies. On their list for chronic back pain was exercise therapy, relaxation, yoga, and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
At the AIPM meeting in fall 2017, Dr. Ahadian announced that a review of 29 trials with almost 18,000 patients showed that acupuncture was effective in treating neck and lower back pain. In addition, it also eased osteoarthritis of the knee and chronic headaches.
Several studies showed that acupuncture was beneficial for osteoarthritis. Tests with glucosamine/chondroitin provide mixed results. A large clinical study found that a small percentage of patients did see relief. Sufferers with moderate to severe pain found some improvement with the combination.
Herbal Treatment: A Review of some studies have shown that dietary supplements with avocado-soybean and devil’s claw may provide pain relief for arthritis.
Furthermore, a 2014 study tested devil’s claw, turmeric, and bromelain for joint pain. The researchers called the results clinically significant. They found a reduction in pain for both chronic and acute pain patients.
Yoga: A 2015 study published in the Journal of Rheumatology concluded that sedentary individuals with arthritis saw significant improvement with hatha yoga. Additionally, both physical and psychological health were improved. The patients improved their balance, grip strength and flexibility. The study measured at eight weeks, and most importantly, the improvements were still there nine months later.
Nutritional Treatments: A 2017 study showed that n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (fish oil) and gamma-linolenic acid (evening primrose oil) reduced joint tenderness in those with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
“Conclusion: Daily supplementation with n-3 fatty acids alone or in combination with GLA exerted significant clinical benefits and certain changes in disease activity.”
Herbal Treatments: Devil’s claw and white willow bark, for example, can decrease the joint pain and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
A July 2017 study from Chinese researchers found that the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbal prescription Wenjinghuoluo showed promise by reducing bone erosion in mice. They concluded it was a good candidate for treating RA.
A later study tested the TCM medicine GuiZhi-ShaoYao-ZhiMu, comparing it against Western medicine. The researchers found the herbal treatment “to be three to six times more effective than standard Western drugs for some symptoms.” Most of all, they had no adverse side effects.
Yoga: Young women saw significant improvement in pain and mood as a result of intervention with Iyengar yoga in 6 weeks. Most noteworthy was that improvements in quality of life and reduction of pain were still in evidence at the two-month follow-up.
Recent research shows that acupuncture reduces the intensity and frequency of migraines.
Herbal Treatments: A 2016 study showed that coriander fruit syrup, a traditional Persian alternative medicine, cut the length and severity of migraines. It also reduced frequency by about 50 percent.
The herb feverfew, combined with CoQ10 and magnesium, helps in the prevention of migraines in adults. In addition, researchers noted that continued use increased its efficacy.
Fibromyalgia and Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments
A small study revealed that tai chi, a form of meditative exercise, is beneficial for fibromyalgia. It improved pain, fatigue and flexibility.
Nutritional Therapies: Vitamin D supplementation was found to ease the chronic widespread pain in patients. It seems that patients with fibromyalgia were found to have lower serum levels of the nutrient.
The antioxidant CoQ10 significantly improved pain in patients with fibromyalgia by 24 to 37 percent. Furthermore, fatigued dropped by 22 percent, and sleep disturbances dropped by 33 percent.
Herbal Treatments: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers herbal preparations along with acupuncture for fibromyalgia. Most noteworthy, TCM doctors in China will start with herbal medicines for this condition. There many Chinese herbs prescribed for fibromyalgia patients, such as American ginseng for lethargy. Valerian root improves quality of sleep, while Hypericum is used for the depression resulting from chronic pain conditions.
Alternative Medicine Treatments for Neuropathy
Nutritional Therapies: A small 2012 study from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, University of Toronto tested five patients with neuropathic pain with high doses of fish oil. As a result, patients had significant improvement in pain levels for up to 19 months after the treatment.
A 2017 Study from Brazil showed improved regeneration of nerve tissues and prevention of nerve pain in mice with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Therefore, the authors concluded:
“These results point to the regenerative and possibly protective properties of a combined “EPA and DHA oral administration after peripheral nerve injury, as well as its anti-neuroinflammatory activity, evidencing ω-3 PUFAs promising therapeutic outcomes for NP treatment.”
Where to Receive Alternative Medicine Advice
You can find a directory of Naturopaths at American Association of Naturopathic Physicians website.
The Alternatives for Healing website has an excellent directory of alternative medicine and holistic practitioners.
The Alternative Medicine Foundation provides a directory of doctors of herbal medicine. In addition, they also provide a great deal of information on herbal treatments.
Patients interested in TCM should consult a licensed practitioner. Therefore, a directory is provided by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
Since many seek an education in alternative medicine, The Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges has a directory of accredited college programs. The American Institute of Alternative Medicine in Ohio provides classes in CAM.