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Complementary therapies


Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due November 2022

Many people in the UK use complementary therapies alongside conventional medicine, in the hope that they will help them to treat symptoms and manage conditions. Here we’ll look at some of the evidence and discuss the pros and cons of using different therapies.

woman receiving massage by a therapist

What are complementary therapies?

Complementary therapies offer a different approach to conventional or mainstream medicine. They include therapies that aren’t usually part of conventional medical care, such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture and homeopathy. They are usually used alongside, or as well as, conventional therapies.

Conventional medicine is based on research evidence, where treatments and medicines have been tested many times over to see whether and how well they work. This is called evidence-based medicine. Your doctor makes decisions about your care based on the best research evidence, their clinical judgement and what you think. It’s the approach that doctors take when you use regulated healthcare services in the UK – for example your local GP surgery, health centre or hospital.

Research about complementary therapies is mixed and less certain. Some therapies have been researched and found to be effective, or comparable to some conventional treatments. But research on other therapies has shown that they don’t work, or there’s no clear evidence to show whether they work or not. Some therapies haven’t been properly tested at all.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is the UK organisation that reviews treatments for a wide range of conditions, including medicines, interventions and new technologies. It publishes guidelines for medical professionals, which look closely at the evidence about how well a treatment works. For some of the therapies described here, we’ve outlined NICE’s position.

You might hear the term alternative therapies used as well. This is when these therapies are used instead of conventional medicine, rather than alongside it. These therapies should not normally replace treatments prescribed by a doctor or other health professional. But if you are having problems with any conventional treatment or want to try alternative therapies, always talk to your doctor before you make any decisions.

How do I find a complementary therapist?

Most people find and pay for a complementary therapist themselves, though your GP or other health professional may also be able to refer you or recommend someone. Some health professionals are trained as complementary therapists.

When you’re choosing a complementary therapist, it’s worth remembering that anyone can claim to be a therapist. It’s a good idea to choose someone who is registered with a professional body and will have met a national standard of practice. These professional bodies are a good place to start, as they can tell you about a therapist’s level of qualification. These other tips may help when you’re looking.

  • Ask the therapist how many years of training they have had and how long they have been practising.
  • Ask what training and experience they have had helping people with your condition.
  • Check that they are properly insured.

You may also find the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) useful. It’s a voluntary regulator for complementary therapists. Visit the CNHC site for more information.

There is a wide range of different complementary therapies available, some more widely used and mainstream than others. We’ve explored some of the main ones below.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an old traditional Chinese medicine. It’s when needles are gently put into specific points on your body where they affect your nerve impulses. It’s one of the most widely used and better researched complementary therapies. Acupuncture is mainly used for managing pain.

More research is still needed to explore how well acupuncture works, but there is some research which shows it may have benefits for preventing migraine and for treating these conditions:

  • tension headaches
  • long-term neck pain
  • feeling sick and being sick when you’re having chemotherapy or after an operation
  • long-term lower back pain

Acupuncture is usually safe and is unlikely to give you side-effects if it’s given by someone who is properly qualified. However, it’s not suitable for everyone, so talk to your doctor before deciding to have acupuncture.

The self-regulatory organisation for acupuncture in the UK is the British Acupuncture Council.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils which come from plants such as trees, flowers and herbs. You can breathe in the scent from the oils, they can be used as part of a massage or added to skin creams or a bath. You can buy aromatherapy products to use at home, or you can see an aromatherapist for an appointment.

Aromatherapy is generally used for relaxation, but people also use it for:


There’s no evidence that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any condition, but it may help to improve your emotional wellbeing. NICE recommends it as one of the things that may help to improve wellbeing for people with dementia. There is also some research which shows aromatherapy may help to ease the symptoms of cancer, such as feeling sick and anxious.

Some aromatherapy oils can cause side-effects and can interact with some conventional medicines. If you’re pregnant, taking other medicines or have other health conditions you should always talk to your doctor before starting to use aromatherapy.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is a medical system based on the theory that ‘like cures like’. The idea is that a substance that usually causes certain symptoms can cure those same symptoms, when it’s given in a very small amount. The smaller the amount of active ingredient in a homeopathic medicine, the greater its effect is said to be. The active ingredients for homeopathic medicines come from plants, minerals and animals. You can take them as tablets to swallow or put under your tongue, and in creams and ointments.

There is no clear evidence that homeopathy works for treating any condition or symptom. NICE does not recommend homeopathy at all, and NHS England has also recommended that health professionals should stop providing it. Some doctors and other health professionals are also trained homeopaths and the Faculty of Homeopathy regulates their training and work. There are four professional bodies for homeopathy, including the Society of Homeopaths and the British Homeopathic Association.

Registered homeopathic medicines should use minute amounts of active ingredient, so side-effects are unlikely. But speak to your doctor if you’re thinking about trying homeopathy to check on the medicine you plan to take, and whether it is registered and likely to be safe for you.

Massage therapy

Massage therapy is where a therapist presses, rubs and manipulates your body’s soft tissues. Therapists usually use their hands and fingers, but you can also have a massage using arms, elbows and feet.

Massage is mainly used for relaxation and general wellbeing, but some people also use it to manage aches and pains. There are several different types of massage including general or Swedish massage, sports massage and therapies like Shiatsu. It’s used for all kinds of symptoms and conditions, including back pain, pain in labour, fibromyalgia and headaches.

Research into massage therapy doesn’t show any clear evidence that it works well or for any length of time. NICE recommends that it can be used to treat low back pain, with or without sciatica, but only as part of a treatment package that includes other approaches such as exercise. There is a small amount of evidence that massage might also be helpful at easing the symptoms of fibromyalgia, relieving the symptoms of people with cancer and improving quality of life for people with HIV/AIDS.

Osteopathy and chiropractic

These are sometimes called manipulation therapies, where therapists use their hands to work on your joints, muscles and tissues. They’re often used to treat lower back, neck and shoulder pain, but they can also be used to manage sports injuries and headaches.

One of the therapies used by chiropractors and osteopaths is spinal manipulation. This is where your therapist moves your joints gradually through a range of movements and then uses a high speed thrust over the joint, which usually makes a loud cracking sound. It is possible to have serious side-effects from this kind of treatment, though it is very rare. Spinal manipulation isn’t suitable for everyone. So, always tell your doctor if you’re thinking about this type of therapy and tell your therapist if you’re taking any medicines or have other health problems.

NICE recommends that these therapies can be used to treat low back pain, with or without sciatica, but only as part of a treatment package that includes other approaches such as exercise.

The regulatory body for osteopathy in the UK is the General Osteopathic Council. The statutory body for chiropractors in the UK is the General Chiropractic Council.

Reflexology

Reflexology is a type of foot massage. The idea behind it is that there are zones running through your body that are linked to parts of your feet. By pressing and massaging parts of your feet a therapist can improve your blood supply and bring balance to your body.

There is very little evidence to show that reflexology can treat any condition or relieve symptoms, but many people find it relaxing and soothing.

Herbal medicines

Many conventional medicines began with natural herbal ingredients, which were then refined into the modern treatments that are widely used by doctors. The idea of herbal medicines is to use these natural ingredients in their original form. However, it may not always be clear exactly what ingredients have been used in a product you buy, and what the right dose to take is.

St John’s wort

St John’s wort is one common herbal remedy. It comes from a plant. It has been used for hundreds of years as a treatment for mental health problems and for wound healing. You can buy it from a chemist or health food shop without a prescription and many people use it to treat depression.

There is some evidence that St John’s wort can treat mild-to-moderate depression. But, doctors do not know what the long-term effects are, or what the right amount to take is. St John’s wort can also interact with many conventional medicines, sometimes causing serious health problems. For these reasons, NICE recommends that doctors don’t recommend it or prescribe it if you have depression.

Frequently asked questions

  • Complementary therapies are popular in the UK. In fact, around 16 out of 100 people will be treated by a complementary therapist and as many as half of us may use a complementary therapy at some time in our lives. There are many reasons why people choose to use them.

    • You might feel like they’re an option if conventional treatments aren’t working as well as you would like, or you’ve found they haven’t suited you.
    • Complementary therapies can feel like a more natural approach. Remember that natural doesn’t always mean harmless, though. For example, some herbal medicines can interact with other medicines or be harmful.
    • Complementary therapies may take a more holistic approach, which means they focus on treating your whole body rather than part of it.
    • They may help you feel better. Many complementary therapies focus on relaxation and reducing your stress, which helps you to feel less anxious.
    • They can help you to feel like you’re more in control. Sometimes it can feel like the health professionals are making all the decisions, especially if you have a serious or life-threatening illness. Choosing to use a complementary therapy can help you feel like you’re playing an active part.


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Related information

    • Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
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  • Reviewed by Graham Pembrey, Lead Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, November 2019
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due November 2022



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