Complementary Approaches for Pain

April 7, 2023 Joe Brady

How much do we know about the effectiveness of complementary health approaches for chronic pain? A growing body of evidence suggests that some complementary approaches, such as acupuncture, hypnosis, massagemindfulness meditation, music-based interventions, spinal manipulationtai chiqigongand yoga, may help to manage some painful conditions.

What do we know about the safety of complementary health approaches for chronic pain?

Chronic pain is pain that lasts more than several months (variously defined as 3 to 6 months, but longer than “normal healing”). It’s a very common problem. Results from the 2019 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) show that:

  • About 20.4 percent of U.S adults had chronic pain (defined as pain on most days or every day in the past 3 months).
  • About 7.4 percent of U.S. adults had high-impact chronic pain (defined as chronic pain that limited their life or work activities on most days or every day for the past 3 months).

The scientific evidence suggests that some complementary health approaches may help people manage chronic pain. Some recent research has looked at the effects of complementary approaches on chronic pain in general rather than on specific painful conditions. 

Read more and download the free Pain ebook from the National Institutes of Health.

  • A 2017 review looked at complementary approaches with the opioid crisis in mind, to see which ones might be helpful for relieving chronic pain and reducing the need for opioid therapy to manage pain. There was evidence that acupuncture, yoga, relaxation techniques, tai chi, massage, and osteopathic or spinal manipulation may have some benefit for chronic pain, but only for acupuncture was there evidence that the technique could reduce a patient’s need for opioids.
  • Products containing substances from cannabis (marijuana), which typically include both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have been tested for their effects on chronic pain in short-term studies. Oral products with high THC/CBD ratios and sublingual (under-the-tongue) products with roughly equal amounts of THC and CBD may reduce chronic pain in the short term but may also have side effects including dizziness and sleepiness. Not much is known about other cannabinoid formulations or the effects of long-term use.
  • Hypnosis may reduce chronic pain if patients participate in enough sessions (at least eight), according to a few studies.
  • Studies on chronic pain showed that mindfulness-based interventions and cognitive behavioral therapy are both helpful in decreasing pain intensity and improving physical functioning, with no important difference between the two approaches. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the prevailing psychological intervention for chronic pain.
  • Studies have shown that music-based interventions can reduce self-reported pain and depression symptoms in people with chronic pain. Effects were greater when the patient, rather than the researcher, chose the music.

Pain: Considering Complementary Approaches (eBook)


Pain is the most common reason for seeking medical care. It is also a common reason why people turn to complementary health approaches. This 50-page eBook provides an overview of complementary health approaches for pain, including acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation, spinal manipulation, yoga, and more. You’ll find summaries of what the science says about whether these approaches are useful and safe, as well as tips to help you be an informed consumer.

Published: February 2023