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

The United States is facing a chronic pain problem. According to one survey, more than 100 million Americans experience chronic physical pain — more than those affected by cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. 

In fact, despite steadily rising opioid addiction and overdose rates (two out of three overdose-related deaths in the U.S. involve opioids), a third of Americans still live in chronic pain. 

Our point? Chronic pain — and the methods by which we alleviate it — are problems worth addressing.

The National Institute of Health defines chronic pain  as any pain that lasts more than three to six months. While some people view alternative medicine as bogus (and sometimes for good reason), we believe some of the evidence may be worth investigating. 

We’ve broken down a few alternative treatments for chronic pain that have become popular to see which — if any — have proven effective in clinical trials and medical studies.

Acupuncture

Maybe you have seen it on TV or heard about it from a friend. The image is someone laying flat on a table with dozens of tiny needles sticking out of their body. This is acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that originated in China thousands of years ago. In the United States, it’s used to treat a variety of conditions from arthritis to anxiety, as well as things like insomnia, drug and alcohol dependency, stress and everything in between. 

Some people feel nothing from acupuncture, but some devout fans of it swear it’s the answer to life’s problems. 

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 potentially be useful in 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 acupuncture’s gradual ascension into the mainstream limelight over the past couple decades, it’s important to note that the science surrounding acupuncture is still spotty.

Other studies into acupuncture’s potential benefits for the treatment of pain acknowledge its controversial nature. 

Researchers in a meta-analysis of 29 separate acupuncture trials acknowledged that different reputable organizations like the American College of Physicians and UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommend acupuncture for patients with certain types of back pain and headaches, but also acknowledged that the evidence supporting the guidelines for acupuncture’s use in pharmacological settings is “fair.” 

Those researchers also acknowledged that at best, the line between sham acupuncture and real acupuncture is thin.

CBD

During the last few years, the marijuana wellness industry has skyrocketed. The latest marijuana-related product craze to sweep the nation is CBD, a cannabinoid found in cannabis and industrial hemp products. 

Instead of getting you high via cannabis’ psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD is believed to potentially help with anxiety and pain

This product is marketed specifically for people who are receptive to the medicinal qualities of marijuana but feel uncomfortable with the high that comes along with it. 

So far, there’s evidence that cannabinoids may be able to help manage pain. 

In 2017, the National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine put out a report that concluded that CBD can be a legitimate treatment for certain generalized health conditions. 

Despite promising evidence, there’s still plenty of reasons to proceed with caution. Aside from the scientific data still being light, CBD 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. 

It’s generally recommended that you cut down on sugary, processed foods and eat more vegetables, fruits and fish.

Turmeric

Originating in South Asia and India, turmeric is a spice commonly used in cooking. 

Turmeric has also gained a reputation as an anti-inflammatory herb that can alleviate different types of pain. Though there hasn’t been enough evidence to make an objective conclusion about turmeric’s role in treating pain and inflammation, there is some research to support it.  

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. 

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 healthcare provider, you can figure out a strategy that works for you.    


Take a look at the blog for more lifestyle and healthcare tips.

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.