Alternative medicine refers to low- to no-risk treatments that are used instead of conventional (standard) ones. If you use an alternative treatment along with conventional medicine or therapy, it is considered complementary therapy.
There are many forms of alternative medicine. Alternatives to medicines include acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, hypnosis, biofeedback, meditation, yoga, and tai-chi.
Acupuncture involves stimulating certain acupoints on the body using fine needles or other methods. How acupuncture works is not entirely clear. It is thought that acupoints lie near nerve fibers. When acupoints are stimulated, the nerve fibers signal the spinal cord and brain to release chemicals that relieve pain.
Acupuncture is an effective means of relieving pain, such as for back pain and headache pain. Acupuncture may also help relieve pain due to:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Childbirth (labor)
- Musculoskeletal injuries (such as the neck, shoulder, knee, or elbow)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Hypnosis is a focused state of concentration. With self-hypnosis, you repeat a positive statement over and over.
Hypnosis may help relieve pain for:
- After surgery or labor
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Migraine headache
- Tension headache
Both acupuncture and hypnosis are often offered by pain management centers in the United States. Other non-drug methods used at such centers include:
- Relaxation training
- Physical therapy
Acupuncture - pain relief; Hypnosis - pain relief; Guided imagery - pain relief
Ernst E. A critical appraisal of complementary and alternative medicine. In: McMahon SB, Koltzenburg M, Tracey I, Turk DC, eds. Wall & Melzack's Textbook of Pain. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 43.
Perlman A. Complementary and alternative medicine. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 39.
White JD. Complementary and alternative medicine. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 33.
Review Date 11/22/2017
Updated by: Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, FRCS (C), FACS, Department of Surgery at Providence Medical Center, Medford, OR; Department of Surgery at Ashland Community Hospital, Ashland, OR; Department of Maxillofacial Surgery at UCSF, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.