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5 Things You Should Know: The Science of Chronic Pain and Complementary Health Practices

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  1. Reviews of research on acupuncture, massage, and spinal manipulation for chronic low-back pain have found evidence that these therapies may be beneficial. There is also some evidence that mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy improves pain and functional limitation compared to usual care.
    • Spinal manipulation: The most recent guidelines from the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians conclude that spinal manipulation is associated with moderate benefit for chronic low-back pain.
    • Acupuncture: In many studies, acupuncture has shown some benefit for low-back pain compared to conventional therapy, but simulated (placebo) acupuncture has also shown a similar benefit, suggesting that a component of any benefit from acupuncture may be due to patient expectation or practitioner attention.
    • Massage: Studies suggest that massage is associated with short-term beneficial effects in reducing pain and improving function compared to usual care in people with chronic low-back pain.
    • Yoga: There are only a few studies on yoga for chronic low-back pain, but results of these studies point to an association with improved function and pain compared to standard medical care.
    • Mindfulness-based stress reduction: A new study in adults with chronic low-back pain found that mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy resulted in greater improvement in pain and functional limitation compared to usual care.
  2. According to reviewers who have assessed the research on complementary health practices and fibromyalgia, much of the research is still preliminary, and evidence of effectiveness for the various therapies used is limited. However, research has shown that tai chi may provide a benefit to patients with fibromyalgia.
  3. Some research has shown that acupuncture may help to reduce pain and improve joint mobility, and a small number of studies on massage and tai chi for osteoarthritis symptoms suggest that both therapies may help to reduce pain and improve the ability to walk and move.
  4. There is some evidence that spinal manipulation may help patients suffering from chronic tension-type or neck-related headaches.

As with any treatment, it is important to consider safety before using complementary health products and practices. If you are considering a complementary health practice to help manage your chronic pain, talk with your health care providers first. And get more information on NCCIH’s Web site about the safe use of complementary health products and practices.

This page last modified March 24, 2016