Complementary Health Approaches to Pain Management 

Complementary and integrative health approaches to pain management can offer a safer, more cost-effective, and less invasive alternative to pharmaceutical and surgical methods for some people. Integrative health approaches can be used in the management of both acute and chronic pain and can be combined with pharmaceutical interventions to achieve the best possible outcomes for a patient (3). These therapies include long-held Eastern medical practices such as acupuncture, yoga, and tai chi, as well as mind-body therapies, spinal manipulations, aromatherapy, and even music therapy. 

More robust research is required to fully understand the benefits of complementary health approaches to pain management. However, current clinical guidelines and research demonstrate an optimistic outlook for integrative health in the management of fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, cancer pains, labor pains, and other forms of acute and chronic pain (2). 

To illustrate, research suggests that acupuncture—a centuries-old healing practice from Chinese medicine—could be an effective form of pain management for neck and back pain, migraines, headaches, arthritis, and postoperative pain (3). Acupuncture is a therapy that involves inserting sterile needles into “acupoints” to stimulate the body’s intrinsic healing abilities and invigorate a person’s “chi” or life force. Under the right conditions, acupuncture produces analgesic effects similar to those of pharmaceuticals and may stimulate the release of endorphins, chemicals that act as the body’s natural pain killer (3). Current clinical guidelines from the Society of Integrative Oncology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology recommend acupuncture for adult patients who are suffering from joint pain related to aromatase inhibitors, a type of medication used in breast cancer treatment (2). Acupuncture may even help relieve cancer pain or other musculoskeletal pains (2). 

Mind-body therapies like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are other forms of complementary health approaches to pain management with an array of benefits. Mind-body therapies work by creating a connection between the mind and body to improve both physiological and psychological health outcomes in patients (6). Yoga, for example, can help reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including morning stiffness, inflammatory markers, and joint pain (6). In particular, mind-body therapies may be beneficial for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis who also present with depressive symptoms. 

Complementary health pain management approaches have also demonstrated efficacy in labor pain management for birthing people. One cognitive behavioral approach to labor pain management is the use of relaxation and breathing techniques to lower both labor pain and labor anxiety (5). A combination of breathing and relaxation techniques can help relieve fear and anxiety around labor as well as pain perception and ultimately reduce the negative health outcomes of cesarean sections and related financial and emotional burdens for patients (5). 

Patients and providers alike are becoming more knowledgeable about complementary health approaches to pain management as more and more research emerges around integrative health methods and their benefits. These alternatives to surgical and pharmaceutical interventions offer the possibility of not only decreasing a patient’s experience of pain, but also improving their overall ability to function and quality of life (3). Not to mention, integrative pain management methods can help reduce or eliminate the use of opioids for patients suffering from both acute and chronic pain, reducing the incidence of opioid dependency and addiction (4). All in all, increased research around and implementation of complementary health approaches for pain management are essential for continuing to improve the quality of patient care. 


  1. “Complementary and Integrative Management of Pain.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 
  1. “Complementary Health Approaches for Chronic Pain: What the Science Says.” NCCIH Clinical Digest for Health Professionals. Sept 2022, 
  1. Hamlin, Amy S and T. Michelle Robertson. “Pain and Complementary Therapies.” Critical Care Nursing Clinics of North America, vol. 29, no. 4, Dec 2017, pp. 449-460, DOI:10.1016/j.cnc.2017.08.005 
  1. Haskins, Julia. “Managing pain differently: A look at alternative therapies.” AAMCNews, 26 March 2019 
  1. Kaple, Gayatri S and Shubhangi Patil. “Effectiveness of Jacobson Relaxation and Lamaze Breathing Techniques in the Management of Pain and Stress During Labor: An Experimental Study.” Cureus, vol. 15, no. 1, 1 Jan 2023, doi:10.7759/cureus.33212  
  1. Slagter et al. “The Effect of Meditation, Mindfulness, and Yoga in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Journal of Personalized Medicine, vol. 12, no. 1, 15 Nov 2022, doi:10.3390/jpm12111905