For Joint Pain, More Try Alternative Therapies

Health Writer
Medically Reviewed

More than half of U.S. adults say they have some sort of joint pain, whether it’s arthritis, lower back pain, neck pain, or sciatica. And more than 40 percent of them are turning to complementary medicine for relief, according to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Musculoskeletal pain disorders include a wide range of injuries or inflammatory conditions involving the body’s joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and tendons that support the limbs, neck, and back. The disorders are some of the primary causes of physical disability, according to the CDC.

Why patients are looking elsewhere

While conventional treatments do exist, they’re not always desirable. Surgery, opioids (such as morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) may not provide long-term benefits or can lead to risky side effects. This is one reason why patients with conditions like neck pain turn to complementary medicine—despite, in some cases, the lack of insurance coverage or the absence of research proving the treatment to be effective.

The CDC, using data mined from 34,525 adults in the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, found that the use of complementary health medicine was considerably higher in people with musculoskeletal disorders than those without (41.6 percent vs. 24.1 percent). Those who reported suffering from neck pain were the most likely to try alternative treatments (50.6 percent).

Among all people with musculoskeletal disorders, the use of natural products, such as non-vitamin supplements and herbs, was more popular than mind-body approaches (biofeedback, meditation, and guided imagery), practitioner-based approaches (chiropractic manipulation, massage therapy, the Alexander technique), and whole medical system approaches (acupuncture, naturopathy, and homeopathy), according to the report. But conclusive research is lacking for many of those treatments, especially supplements.

Our advice

A growing body of scientific evidence does suggest that approaches such as chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, massage, and yoga may benefit some painful conditions. Just make sure to let your doctor know if you decide to try any of these.

“Given the prevalence of complementary therapy usage and the potential for side effects, it’s important to let your physician know all of treatment modalities that you have incorporated into your health regimen," says John A. Flynn, M.D., M.B.A., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the HealthAfter50 board of advisors.

Read more about a treatment plan for your arthritis treatments for sciatica and the best ways to find neck pain relief.