Complementary Therapies for Pain

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Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Gordon Irving, M.D.

It is normal to want to treat your pain in any way that works and is not harmful to you. Many people use CAM therapy and most of this booklet is about complementary therapy, such as exercise, relaxation and meditation, which can decrease pain and improve function. Many herbals, vitamins, and natural products have not been scientifically tested for benefit, side effects or interactions with any medications you may be taking. The reason you get information with your medicine at the pharmacy is because it has been tested and the side effects listed. “Natural products” are not controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and their side effects have not been studied. Use sites like  (search for “herbs”), or to learn more about natural products.


Complementary Medicine: This is used with standard medical treatment (e.g. acupuncture with pain medications)

Alternative Therapy: This is used instead of standard medical treatment (e.g. a special diet for chronic stomach pain)

Integrative Medicine: This treatment involves the mind, body, and spirit. It uses standard medicine with CAM treatments. That is what Swedish STOMP has tried to do.

There are five main types of CAM:

1. Mind-Body Medicines

  • Meditation: Focused breathing and repeating words or phrases to quiet the mind.
  • Biofeedback: Simple machines help you learn to change muscle tension and heart rate.
  • Hypnosis: Relaxed, focused attention on a feelings, ideas, or suggestions to aid healing.
  • Yoga: Stretches and poses with attention on breathing.
  • Creative outlets: Art, music, dance, etc.

2.  Biologically based practices
Often found in dietary supplements and herbal products: vitamins, herbs, foods, and special diets.

3.  Manipulative and body based practices

  • Massage
  • Chiropractic care: Adjusting the joints and spine.
  • Reflexology: Pushing on parts of the hands and feet to affect other parts of the body.

4.  Energy medicines

  • Tai Chi: Slow, gentle movements with a focus on breath and concentration.
  • Reiki: Balancing energy either from a distance or placing hands on or near the patient.
  • Therapeutic touch: Moving hands over energy fields of the body.

5.  Whole Medicine Systems
Comes from many areas and cultures of the world.

  • Ayurvedic medicine: From India, balances body, mind and spirit.
  • Chinese medicine: Balances the body’s two forces, yin and yang.
  • Acupuncture: Thin needles stimulate points on the body to clear "blockages" and promote health.
  • Homeopathy: Very small amounts of substances are used to help the body heal.
  • Naturopathic medicine: Uses different methods to help the body heal.

How will you know which may work for your pain?

Finding a CAM practitioner:

  • Ask your doctor to suggest someone.
  • Ask if your hospital keeps a list of centers or has staff that can suggest someone.
  • Contact CAM professional organizations to get names of practitioners who are certified.
  • Ask about the practitioner's training and experience.
  • Call your health care plan to see if it covers this therapy.

Things to Consider:

  • Just because a product is natural does not mean it is safe. Some products may interfere with your usual medications.
  • Supplements do not have to be approved by the Federal Government and some may not contain what they say do.
  • Look on the label for products produced in Germany. They are quality controlled by the government so do contain the stated amount of product.
  • Do some homework before you spend your money on an herbal or natural remedy.