Integrative approaches to treating pain
Medically reviewed on October 31, 2017
You've probably looked for pain relief from something more than just a pill. Maybe you've gotten a massage, tried biofeedback or added dietary supplements to your diet. These are forms of what used to be called complementary and alternative medicine. Now, however, complementary and alternative medicine is most often referred to as integrative medicine.
Integrative medicine includes therapies that are used in addition to those used in conventional medicine, such as practicing yoga in addition to taking a prescription analgesic. Today the term "integrative medicine" is commonly used to describe health care practices and products that are not generally part of conventional medicine, but that scientific evidence supports combining with conventional care.
Most of these integrative therapies aren't new. In fact, some — such as acupuncture and certain herbal remedies — have been around for thousands of years. These therapies are now experiencing a surge in popularity — especially when it comes to managing pain.
That's not surprising. Pain can leave you feeling helpless, with no control and at the mercy of the medications prescribed to you. And although your prescriptions may be effective, you might struggle with side effects or fear the risks of increasing dosages or long-term use. Integrative therapies, on the other hand, can give you a broad range of philosophies and approaches to supplement the care your doctor gives you, increase your relief from pain, and improve your overall quality of life.
Combining conventional and unconventional care
The goal of integrative medicine is to treat the whole person — mind, body and spirit — not just an underlying disease. This can be accomplished by combining the best of conventional medicine with the best of less conventional practices — therapies that have a reasonable amount of high-quality evidence to support their use.
Researchers and health care professionals are finding that integrative medicine can provide positive outcomes for a broad range of pain causes. This is because pain is often a whole-body experience. Pain doesn't always come from just one source. There's the physical cause of the pain, of course — the injury, the joint pain, the muscle strain. But this physical pain can often be compounded by stress, frustration, fatigue, medication side effects and many other factors.
Conventional medicine typically only addresses physical pain. This is where integrative therapies can step in, to help with myriad other factors associated with pain. For example, a person who has knee surgery might be prescribed an analgesic to relieve post-surgery pain, visit a physical therapist to learn exercises to get moving again, and take a nutritional supplement to help with inflammation and joint health.
Are integrative pain therapies right for you?
You may wonder: Are integrative therapies safe? Could they actually work for me? Should I talk with my health care professional before using them?
These are all excellent questions. With their increasing popularity, more clinical research has been conducted on integrative therapies. Overall, the results are encouraging, and many conventional health care professionals are now incorporating integrative therapies that are supported by scientific studies into their practice of medicine.
Combined with conventional medicine, integrative approaches can help relieve pain and improve quality of life. Before you start any new treatment, however, do your research. Not all integrative therapies have been appropriately tested for safety and effectiveness.
- Gather information. Investigate specific therapies by viewing reputable websites and talking to your health care professional.
- Use reputable therapy providers. Only use providers who have professional credentials, or who come recommended by your health care professional.
- Beware of interactions. Ask whether any nutritional supplements you are considering taking might interfere with your over-the-counter or prescription medications.
- Understand treatment costs. Many integrative therapies aren't covered by health insurance.
- Talk with your health care professional before trying something new. This is especially important if you're pregnant or nursing.
When to choose integrative therapies
There are several reasons to add appropriate integrative therapies to your pain treatment plan. Some of them include:
- To have more control. When you hurt, you want to take action. If your only source of pain relief is a prescription medication, however, the only action you can take is to wait for the next dose. Integrative therapies give you more strategies for pain relief, and they can be available when you need them.
- To help manage the side effects of your pain medications. Prescription pain relievers are often accompanied by side effects, such as drowsiness, nausea or constipation. Integrative therapies can help alleviate side effects.
- To address issues related to your pain. Pain will often affect your mood and leave you feeling tense and tired. Integrative therapies can help you reverse those undesirable outcomes.
- Your health care professional recommends them. Many health care professionals are now combining integrative therapies with conventional medical therapies.
What conditions respond to integrative therapies?
Many integrative therapies can be successfully joined with conventional medicine to help relieve pain. Research has shown that integrative therapies can be effective in relieving many types of pain, including the following conditions:
- Back and neck pain
- Arthritis and joint pain
- Pain resulting from injury or trauma
- Post-surgery pain
- Headache pain
- Pelvic pain and menstrual cramps
Addressing the whole person
Integrative therapies are unique in that they address the whole person. Instead of just treating the source of the pain, integrative medicine takes a whole-body approach.
Most integrative therapies target both mind and body to help reduce pain. A good example is yoga, which quiets and relaxes the mind while stretching and strengthening the body. Practicing yoga might not directly relieve the source of your pain, but it can relax your body, loosen tense muscles, refresh your mind and mentally prepare you to better manage your discomfort.