Many types of effective pain relief can be found without pills. Maybe you’ve gotten a massage, tried biofeedback or added dietary supplements. These are forms of what used to be called complementary and alternative medicine. Now, however, complementary and alternative medicine is most often referred to as integrative medicine.
Integrative medicine is a term commonly used to describe health-care practices and products that are not generally part of conventional medicine, but that scientific evidence supports combining with conventional care.
“Integrative medicine typically refers to practices that are not usually offered in conventional care, for example, using yoga as a way to address someone’s pain, in addition to taking a prescription medication,” says Dr. Tina Ardon, a Mayo Clinic family medicine physician. “Other names for this include complementary or alternative medicine, but, nowadays, integrative medicine really refers to all those practices that can help.
Integrative medicine therapies are experiencing a surge in popularity, especially when it comes to managing pain.
Pain can leave you feeling helpless, with no control and at the mercy of the medications prescribed to you. And, although your prescriptions may be effective, you might struggle with side effects or fear the risks of increasing dosages or long-term use. On the other hand, integrative medicine therapies draw from a broad range of philosophies and approaches to supplement your health-care provider’s care, increase your relief from pain and improve your overall quality of life.
“Many any of these therapies are certainly not new. So things like acupuncture or herbal remedies have been around for quite some time — thousands of years,” says Ardon.
“They are gaining a lot more popularity nowadays as a way to help address patients’ pain. We certainly have medications that can help patients with their pain, but they often come with their own problems and side effects, and fears in long-term use, increasing dosage, things of that nature.”
Combining conventional, unconventional care
The goal of integrative medicine is to treat the whole person — mind, body and spirit — not just an underlying disease. This can be accomplished by combining the best of conventional medicine with the best of less-conventional practices — therapies that have a reasonable amount of high-quality evidence to support their use.
“Conventional therapies and medications tend to only target the physical aspect of pain or the source of pain, whereas integrative medicine can really help address the other factors related to that,” says Ardon. For example, a person who has knee surgery might be prescribed an analgesic to relieve post-surgery pain, visit a physical therapist to learn exercises to get moving again and take a nutritional supplement to help with inflammation and joint health.
Researchers and health-care providers are finding that integrative medicine can provide positive outcomes for a broad range of pain causes. This is because pain doesn’t always come from just one source. There’s the physical cause of the pain, of course — the injury, the joint pain, the muscle strain. But this physical pain often can be compounded by stress, frustration, fatigue, medication side effects and many other factors.
“As physicians and as providers, we really seek to offer those modalities that have a reasonable amount of evidence behind them to support their use,” says Ardon. “So combining those therapies with our traditional therapies can be helpful in improving a patient’s quality of life.”
Are integrative pain therapies right for you?
With their increasing popularity, more clinical research has been conducted on integrative therapies. Overall, the results are encouraging, and many conventional health-care professionals are incorporating integrative therapies that are supported by scientific studies into their practice of medicine.
Combined with conventional medicine, integrative approaches can help relieve pain and improve quality of life. Before you start any new treatment, however, do your research. Not all integrative therapies have been appropriately tested for safety and effectiveness.
Take these suggestions into consideration:
- Gather information. Investigate specific therapies by viewing reputable websites and talking to your health-care provider.
- Use reputable therapy providers. Only see providers who have professional credentials or are recommended by your health-care provider.
- Beware of interactions. Ask whether any nutritional supplements you are considering taking might interfere with your over-the-counter or prescription medications.
- Understand treatment costs. Many integrative therapies aren’t covered by health insurance.
- Talk with your health-care professional before trying something new, especially if you’re pregnant or nursing.