Complementary Therapies for Pain: Can They Reduce Opioid Use?
Complementary therapies for pain management have been used for centuries. Learn how some may be used as complements or alternatives to opioid treatment.
·November 6th, 2021
Complementary therapies for pain have long been used to treat and manage pain.
Chronic pain is a public health problem, which is frequently treated with prescription opioids.
Complementary and altv therapies like acupuncture, behavioral therapy, and mind-body techniques currently show the strongest scientific evidence for chronic pain management.
You should always speak to your provider before adopting a new CAM therapy for pain management.
See our provider directory for help finding a complementary or alternative therapist near you.
Complementary therapies for pain are becoming increasingly popular with people who are unable to take — or uncomfortable taking — opioids. Both chronic and acute pain are commonly treated with prescription opioids, but complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, also known as integrative therapies, can offer alternatives to relying solely on prescription opioids to manage pain.
Popular complementary therapies for pain management
CAM therapies are becoming increasingly popular for managing chronic pain in the United States. Though the evidence is growing, some CAM therapies are deemed safer than others.
It’s important to weigh the risks and the benefits of any therapy you wish to use for pain management — whether you’re considering CAM or conventional Western therapies.
Your current health status, any special health circumstances, and your current care plan can all have an impact on the effectiveness of certain CAM therapies. Always speak with your healthcare provider before starting a new CAM therapy for pain management.
Here are five complementary and alternative therapies that can reduce or replace opioid painkillers:
Acupuncture is one of the leading CAM therapies that’s been adopted into Western medicine. With acupuncture, a provider uses needles to stimulate specific points on your body. This technique is generally deemed safe when performed by a trained provider using sterile needles.
Research has been mounting for the use of acupuncture in managing chronic pain. In fact, a 2018 meta-analysis found that acupuncture was effective in managing pain during treatment and beyond. The researchers found that a majority of participants reported feeling relief from osteoarthritis, headaches, and musculoskeletal pain for up to a year after treatment.
These findings have been supported through additional studies and reviews. For example, a 2017 narrative review also found “strong positive evidence” for the use of acupuncture in treating chronic pain.
Many of these studies were conducted with providers using integrative approaches to treatment. Authors of each study recommended additional research to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture or other CAM therapies on chronic pain management.
Chinese herbal medicine
Chinese herbal medicine is the use of various Chinese herbs, usually in combination with other techniques, such as naturopathy, nutrition support, homeopathy, or ayurvedic medicine.
One systematic review found that the use of medicinal plants, drugs or products, and techniques like acupressure may help to reduce pelvic and endometriosis pain.
The study authors believe these techniques suppress pain by reducing prostaglandins, enhancing circulatory flow, or increasing endorphins throughout the body. However, this study only looked at one area of pain management and could not confirm these mechanisms.
Studies on Chinese herbal medicine to reduce pain have been limited and have not consistently produced evidence that this practice works beyond placebo effect. However, there are many anecdotal reports that herbal medicine can be effective at treating pain.
A note of caution: Some herbal remedies have been deemed risky due to inconsistencies in herbal product ingredients. Work only with reputable herbalists and carefully research their credentials before beginning any herbal medicine regimen. Visit our provider directory to search for a reliable practitioner in your area.
Nutrition or dietitian support
Having specialized nutrition or dietitian support may help to manage chronic pain. Some providers support the use of diet and nutrition to manage pain that results from inflammation. Seeking professional support from a certified nutritionist or dietitian can be a safe and helpful method of therapy.
A well-balanced diet can bolster your immune system and also help to reduce inflammation throughout your body. This includes a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while reducing red meat, alcohol, caffeine, and complex carbohydrates.
The research on exactly how diet affects chronic pain management is limited. However, recent research does show that largely plant-based diets may support pain management for people living with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Additional research is still needed to reveal the mechanisms of diet’s effect on pain management.
However, if your pain is a result of irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease, dietary modification is likely to play a significant role in easing your symptoms.
Speak to your provider before making any drastic changes to your diet — especially if you’re currently taking prescription medications. And be sure to work with a properly certified nutritional therapist to help you find the best diet for your condition.
Behavioral therapy techniques can help people to manage both stress and pain. Not only does chronic pain cause stress, but this additional stress can actually make you more sensitive to pain. A psychologist can help you to manage your stress and to work through your chronic pain.
Examples of behavioral therapy that can help to manage chronic pain include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help you to reframe how you think about pain, which can reduce pain symptoms. It can also help you to set and achieve goals for your care plan, such as engaging in more physical activity.
Hypnosis. Some research has shown hypnosis to be moderately effective for helping people to manage their chronic pain. These outcomes vary from person to person.
Music or music therapy. Playing music during treatment or engaging in music therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on patients and self-reported pain management. Research on vocal music therapy for pain management has been shown to increase self-efficacy, motivation, and social engagement.
Speak with a psychologist to determine the best type of behavioral therapy for your needs, or visit our provider directory to find therapists in your area.
Mind-body techniques work on both the physical and the mental level. These therapies emphasize the connection between mind and body. Mind-body therapies may involve breathing techniques, building body awareness, meditation practices, or guided movement.
Research supports the use of some mind-body techniques for managing chronic pain. Popular examples of mind-body practices for pain management include:
Mindfulness meditation. One scientific review of CAM therapies for chronic pain management showed that study participants using mindfulness meditation showed small improvements in reported pain. This has been supported in other research as well. For example, an additional study showed mindfulness meditation significantly improves pain management through multiple unique mechanisms within the brain.
Tai chi. Research on the use of tai chi for pain management has shown mixed results. However, a small study on the use of tai chi for people living with rheumatoid arthritis showed improvement in lower limb function. Other studies have shown tai chi to be effective at improving mood and overall physical function.
Yoga. Research shows that regularly practicing yoga has the potential to reduce pain and improve mobility in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Many research studies on mind-body techniques focus on specific health conditions. Additional research is still needed to determine their impact on general chronic pain management. However, mind-body techniques are safe for most people to use under the direction of a trained professional.
Can CAM help to prevent opioid use?
Millions of Americans currently take opioids to manage their chronic pain. Recent reviews have shown strong support for CAM therapies like acupuncture to manage chronic pain in place of opioids. Other therapies, such as yoga and tai chi, show promise but need additional time and research to confirm their ability to reduce opioid use.
Although additional research is needed, the evidence for the use of CAM to manage chronic pain continues to grow. At the end of the day, you get to choose the care that is right for you. Your provider can help you weigh the risks and benefits of specific therapies.
Find a provider
Choosing the best CAM therapy for pain management can take time. Let Bright Belly help you find trustworthy practitioners who can help you on your way to better health. And follow our blog for trustworthy information on alternative and complementary therapies.