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Review: Non-Drug Relief from Chronic Pain

If your body’s hurting, checking the class schedule at your local yoga studio may be a good idea. According to a review, complementary therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, and tai chi may help alleviate certain types of chronic pain. Published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the review included 105 US-based, randomized, controlled trials from 1966 to 2016. The trials analyzed the effects of different complementary therapies (including acupuncture, spinal and osteopathic manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques, tai chi, and yoga) on low back pain, osteoarthritis of the knee, fibromyalgia, neck pain, and severe headaches and migraines. Although the data was difficult to organize due to the diversity of study participants and methods, the review found evidence to suggest that four types of pain were alleviated by certain complementary therapies:

  • Low back pain. Studies comparing acupuncture (two studies) and yoga (four studies) with usual treatment or no treatment found that these complementary therapies were effective for reducing back pain intensity and improving function. In studies comparing acupuncture and yoga to sham therapies for low back pain, acupuncture performed favorably in one of three studies, and yoga performed favorably in the only study of this type.
  • Osteoarthritis of the knee. While results from trials comparing acupuncture to sham therapies were mixed, one trial found that acupuncture was associated with a greater reduction in knee pain and improvement in function after 14 weeks of treatment. In addition, two trials comparing acupuncture to standard treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee found that acupuncture was more effective. In four trials, tai chi was also found to help with arthritis-related knee pain and loss of function compared with routine treatments and with a placebo.
  • Neck pain. In five trials, massage therapy relieved neck pain and improved range of motion better than routine treatment, no treatment, or self-care instructions. And, according to one study, more massage may have led to better results: 60 minutes of massage therapy two to three times per week was associated with significantly greater neck pain relief than 30 or 60 minutes of massage therapy once per week after four weeks.
  • Severe headaches and migraines. Seven studies found that relaxation techniques such as emotional training, stress management, and biofeedback treatment were more effective than usual treatment, no treatment, or sham cognitive training at reducing the frequency of headaches and migraines. Some of these studies also noted that relaxation techniques were associated with improvements in headache pain-related disabilities.

Source: Mayo Clinic Proceedings

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