What Alternative Treatments Work for Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, Editor

A review of over a hundred clinical trials has found that some alternative pain therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, and massage are effective in treating chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis of the knee, migraine and headaches.

But only weak evidence was found that they might help people with fibromyalgia.

The review was conducted by scientists at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The study,  published online in the Mayo Clinic Proceedingswas conducted to give patients and primary care providers better evidence on the effectiveness of non-drug treatments for chronic pain.

“One major goal for this study was to be as relevant as possible to primary care providers in the United States, who frequently see and care for patients with painful conditions. Providers need more high quality information on the evidence base for pain management tools, especially nondrug approaches,” said lead author Richard Nahin, PhD, an epidemiologist with NIH.

“Overall, the data suggest that some complementary approaches may help some patients manage, though not cure, painful health conditions.”

The scientists “found promise” in the safety and effectiveness of these treatments:

  • Acupuncture and yoga for back pain
  • Acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee
  • Massage therapy for neck pain  
  • Relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine.

Though the evidence was weaker, the researchers found that massage, spinal manipulation, and osteopathic manipulation may provide some help for back pain. Relaxation approaches and tai chi might also help some people with fibromyalgia.

Mixed or no evidence was found that glucosamine, chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, and S-Adenosyl methionine (SAMe) are effective in treating chronic pain.

Each year Americans spend about $30 billion on alternative and so-called complimentary health treatments, even though few studies have been conducted on their effectiveness. The NIH researchers had to go back 50 years to find enough clinical studies to review. Many of the studies involved fewer than 100 people, which weakens the conclusions drawn from them. Some of the same studies were used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as evidence for its opioid prescribing guidelines, which encourage "non-pharmacological" treatments for chronic pain.

“It's important that continued research explore how these approaches actually work and whether these findings apply broadly in diverse clinical settings and patient populations," said David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.