Do Alternative Treatments For Chronic Pain Actually Work?

Kristin Hall, FNP
Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 7/25/2020

It’s pretty well known that the United States is facing a chronic pain problem. According to one survey, anywhere between 100 to 116 million Americans experience physical pain. The National Institute of Health defines chronic pain  as “any pain lasting more than 12 weeks” that  can result from an “initial injury, such as a back sprain.” In addition, this condition could also stem from an illness or psychological issue. While some people view alternative medicine as bogus, it could be useful to have an open mind and look into a variety of treatments for your pain. But even if you’ve found an alternative treatment that works for you, you should contact a physician and run it by them first.

We’ve broken down a few alternative treatments for chronic pain that have become popular:


Maybe you have seen it on a TV show or film:  someone lying on a massage table with a bunch of tiny needles sticking out of random parts of their body. Acupuncture is a medical practice that originated in China thousands of years ago. In the United States, its used to treat a variety of conditions including headaches, stress, anxiety, and pain and has developed a devoted following. How does it work?

An acupuncturist inserts tiny needles into your body for an extended period of time to release energy, referred to as qi. According to traditional Chinese medicine, you experience illness when qi gets stuck in a part of your body. Acupuncture is supposed to release qi by triggering certain points and allowing it to flow throughout the body.

Though contemporary acupuncture doesn’t strictly abide by traditional Chinese medical practices, it’s still based on this idea of pressure points being connected to a bodily ecosystem. In recent years, there’s been a growing consensus that it could actually work for treating pain. A 2017 study published in  the Journal of Pain concluded that “acupuncture has a clinically relevant effect on chronic pain that persists over time” and the “effect of acupuncture cannot be explained only by placebo effects.” Despite the gradual mainstreaming of the practice, the actual reasons why it works are still a bit ambiguous. Writing for Live Science, Elizabeth Palermo spoke to experts and acupuncturists who provided a number of medical theories that ranged from how the needles can stimulate nerves to how it reduces proteins that cause inflammation. Despite still being a bit mysterious, one thing is for sure — acupuncture is no longer seen as a medical taboo.


During the last few years, the marijuana wellness industry has skyrocketed. The latest marijuana-related product to become a craze is CBD, a cannabinoid found in cannabis. Instead of getting you high like THC, it helps with anxiety and pain. This product is ideal for anyone whose receptive to the medicinal qualities of marijuana but feels uncomfortable with the high that comes along with it.  It turns out that this was an untapped market because, in the past couple of years alone, CBD products have taken off. If you cruise the internet, you can find CBD gummies, creams, oils, vape pens, and more. But do any of these products actually treat pain?

Though there are currently many clinical trials looking into CBD, this topic is generally an unknown.  But so far, there’s been evidence that cannabinoids can generally help. In 2017, the National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine put out a report that concluded that cannabis can be a legitimate treatment. Despite some evidence, there’s still plenty of reasons to proceed with caution. This is a lightly regulated industry and it's hard to actually know what you’re consuming. A 2015 study randomly tested cannabis products and found that only 17% were accurately labeled. So, if your friend is telling you that you have to try that CBD cream and then you order it only to find that it doesn’t do anything for you, it could very well be an inconsistency in the product. With something as serious as chronic pain, you should look into treatments that are backed by more research and regulation.

Changing Your Diet

Generally, changing one’s diet is associated with trying to lose weight or cut down on unhealthy foods. But for people who suffer from chronic pain, finding a new diet can be a simple treatment. Following an injury or infection, white blood cells gather at the affected part of your body to help it heal. This causes inflammation which can be painful but is ultimately necessary for the healing process. Sometimes, the immune system keeps on sending white blood cells even after the problem is fixed and subsequently damages your healthy calls. This causes your body to have a lingering pain. According to Dr. Tabung, “a poor diet can alter your immune system, so it acts abnormally, and can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation." It’s generally recommended that you cut down on sugary, processed foods and eat more vegetables, fruits, and fish. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and fish oil supplements are a part of a healthy diet that is associated with lower levels of inflammation. If you’re looking for a specific diet that has anti-inflammatory outcomes, the Mediterranean diet prioritizes  fruit, whole grains, olive oil, and protein. 


Originating in Southeast Asia and India, turmeric is a spice that’s commonly used in cooking. Turmeric has also gained a reputation as an anti-inflammatory herb that can alleviate all kinds of pain. Though there hasn’t been enough evidence to make an objective conclusion, a few studies that have shown that it works.  A 2009 study gave curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, to 107 people suffering from knee osteoarthritis. The study found that it was just as powerful as ibuprofen. In addition, a research team in the University of Arizona has similarly found that the herb can decrease inflammation through blocking specific proteins that trigger blood vessel growth. It may be worth looking into a turmeric tea recipe after all.

If you’re wary of alternative treatments, there are a plethora of physical therapy treatments out there. A physical therapist will teach you exercises that can help reduce your pain on a daily or weekly basis. These therapists can also show you how to do the exercises yourself so you can eventually integrate it into your daily routine. Chronic pain can be daunting but there’s no reason to give up hope. With a physician, you can figure out a strategy that works for you.    

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.