Alternative Therapies for Pain: What Works?

Tonja Henderson from Parma Ohio has needles placed in her ear as part of her acupuncture treatment for pain.
Tonja Henderson from Parma Ohio has needles placed in her ear as part of her acupuncture treatment for pain.

(Sound of needle package cracking and opening)

Tonja Henderson from Parma, Ohio is lying on a padded table in a sunlight room on the upper floors of the Cleveland Clinic.

She's not waiting to see a doctor. She's waiting to see Jamie Starkey, the Clinic's lead acupuncturist.

Starkey cracks open fresh packs of needles that she'll place in Henderson's back, shoulder, and ears.

(Sound of interaction: STARKEY: Ok show me where you're feeling the discomfort today. HENDERSON: (unzips coat) I raise it up-it's right in here. STARKEY: Still that burning? HENDERSON: Oh yeah, that's still there. Right here. STARKEY: Anything in the actual joint itself? HENDERSON: Yes, oh yes. STARKEY: Still caught? HENDERSON: Yes.)

In 2008, Henderson was slammed in a revolving door.

HENDERSON: (GLAUSSER: Ouch.) Yes. I was in shock…

She's been seeing Starkey for about half a year now to treat the pain in her shoulder. She's also on pain meds but they don't provide adequate relief.

Starkey says this is a common problem.

STARKEY: So often when patients are coming in to see me, they're on so much pain medication and they're still in pain.

(Sounds of needles being placed in Henderson. Muffled sound of HENDERSON: Oh it's getting better.)

(Sounds of soothing music)

Needles in place, Henderson rests. Starkey tells me she's had some remarkable success treating pain with acupuncture.

STARKEY: I mean pain scores that will go from a 10+ out of 10 straight down to almost a 2 or a 3 almost immediately.

A review of the scientific literature published by a leading medical journal, The Lancet, concluded that there’s little evidence that acupuncture improves physical functioning but that acupuncture has been quite helpful in relieving low-back pain, neck pain and fibromyalgia.

EDWARDS: One of the things that is our biggest ally against pain is acupuncture.

Dr. Tanya Edwards is the director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

There's no definitive biomedical answer for why acupuncture works though there's general agreement that the needles stimulate the nervous system and trigger release of pain-relieving endorphins.

Spinal manipulation--the kind a chiropractor might do-- is another alternative therapy where there’s scientific evidence of effectiveness for low-back pain.

Massage also is sometimes suggested but, according to the British journal, Lancet, its effectiveness is hard to measure due to the “wide variations in massage techniques.”

As for relaxation techniques, stretching, yoga…the jury’s still out. The National Institutes of Health finds them “promising” for treating some types of pain but the evidence isn’t conclusive.

Things like mineral baths, certain supplements, and magnets don't make the cut and have limited or no evidence to support their use, yet they can be pricey.

Dr. Tanya Edwards says people need to be careful.

In her own practice, she sticks to validated therapies.

EDWARDS: When they have been studied with randomized control trials and show that they work, then we bring them in.

The hard truth is that most chronic pain sufferers will not see their pain go away, entirely; in fact, studies show many get only a small amount of long-term relief no matter what traditional or alternative treatments are used.

Lowering expectations and learning to live with a certain amount of discomfort is part of managing the "Body in Pain.”

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