Healing & Preventing Pain: Complementary & Integrative Approaches Skip to main content

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Healing & Preventing Pain: Complementary & Integrative Approaches

Pain In the U.S.

25.3 million American adults suffer from daily pain

23.4 million American adults report a lot of pain

Citation: Nahin RL. Estimates of pain prevalence and severity in adults: United States, 2012. Journal of Pain. 2015;16(8):769-780. Visit nccih.nih.gov/health/pain  for more information.

When we feel pain, some of us reach for a pain remedy—something quick and easy. While popping a pill may offer fast relief, other options may be better for our long-term health. For instance, we know that opioid use for chronic pain isn’t always the best remedy. In fact, it can lead to other health problems, including addiction and overdose.

Pain in the U.S. Graph

Meet The NCCIH

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) conducts and supports research and provides reliable information about medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine.

Perhaps you’ve seen the words “complementary” and “integrative” but don’t understand what they mean.

  • Health approaches with origins outside of conventional Western medicine—such as yoga, acupuncture, and massage therapy—are called complementary.

  • Bringing conventional and complementary medicine together in a coordinated way is called integrative.
NCCIH researchers study complementary and integrative approaches to health and wellness. They explore the benefits of these approaches in many situations, including chronic pain management.

Although some pain and painful conditions may only last a few days or weeks, millions of Americans suffer with chronic (long-term) pain. Painful conditions—such as back, neck, or joint pain—are the most common reasons why U.S. adults use complementary health approaches.

What the Statistics Say

About 40 million American adults experience severe pain. Americans spend more than $30 billion out-of-pocket annually on complementary approaches.

  • In 2012, the National Health Interview Survey found that about 25.3 million adults have daily pain—that is, they reported they had pain every day in the three months before the survey. About 23.4 million adults reported having a lot of pain. Adults with more severe pain had worse health, used more health care, and had more disability than those with less severe pain.

  • A June 2014 report in JAMA Internal Medicine showed a high rate of chronic pain—44 percent—among U.S. military members after combat deployment, compared to 26 percent in the general public.
“Finding relief for millions of Americans is very important to help ease their pain and lift the heavy burden on the health care system,” says Josephine Briggs, MD, the director of NCCIH. “We currently have a number of research projects aimed at this purpose.”

What Research Says About Complementary and Integrative Choices for Pain

Effective management of pain is a major medical challenge in the United States. While low-back pain usually gets better over time, if it persists, an individual can miss a substantial amount of time from work, have high treatment costs, turn to surgery, and/or even become disabled.

Studies suggest complementary health approaches may help in the treatment and management of chronic pain. It’s also important to better understand how to integrate complementary options into care and how to get the best outcomes for patients.

Here are a few approaches to help with pain:

  • Spinal manipulative therapy (often performed by chiropractors) in managing back pain has been the subject of several trials and many reviews. Guidelines from the American Pain Society and the American College of Physicians suggest spinal manipulation can bring about small to moderate short-term benefits for acute (fewer than four weeks) back pain and moderate benefits for chronic (more than four weeks) back pain.

  • There is evidence acupuncture, massage, and yoga are also good for chronic low-back pain. Acupuncture and tai chi may help with osteoarthritis of the knee, massage therapy may be useful for people with neck pain, and relaxation techniques may provide benefit for people with severe headaches, including migraines.

  • Studies on therapeutic massage show that it helps relieve low-back pain and pain from fibromyalgia.

  • Practices that combine movement and meditation, such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong, are already being used in health care settings across the country with many benefits.
In light of the human and economic costs of chronic pain, as well as evidence that many people who have chronic pain turn to complementary health approaches for relief, NCCIH places a high priority on pain-related research.

“Much remains to be understood about the nature of chronic pain, its many causes, people’s different responses, and the value of various approaches—both complementary and conventional,” Dr. Briggs says. “The goal is to build an evidence base that can guide pain management decisions tailored to individuals. These decisions often mean combining treatments in cost-effective ways that do the best job of helping people reduce pain, carry out everyday activities, and improve their quality of life.”

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