Complementary approaches like yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, massage therapy and relaxation techniques can help some people manage chronic pain, says a research review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings (2016; 91 [9], 1292–1306). In the United States, chronic pain affects 126 million adults in any given year, with as many as 40 million of them suffering from severe pain. Leading disorders include back pain, joint pain, neck pain and headaches.

The review’s purpose, according to NCCIH researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was to examine clinical-trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques (including meditation), some natural-product supplements (e.g., chondroitin and glucosamine), tai chi and yoga—used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain and severe headaches. Investigators included findings only from randomized clinical trials conducted in the United States, to ensure consistency in licensing and training of complementary-care practitioners.

In the 105 studies reviewed, investigators found more positive than negative results from the following approaches and concluded that they may be able to help patients with pain management:

  • acupuncture and yoga for back pain
  • acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee
  • massage therapy for neck pain—with adequate doses and for short-term benefit
  • relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine

In general, complementary approaches are safe, with only minimal muscle and joint soreness occurring in some yoga and tai chi participants and minor pain and/or bruising at needle sites in some acupuncture recipients. Some study subjects who took supplements experienced gastrointestinal distress. In contrast, pain medications often have adverse side effects, and some carry risk of addiction.

To read the study, go to www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(16)30317-2/fulltext .

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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