Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies

Continue

Navigation

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies – also called alternative therapies depending on how they’re being used – are ways of trying to treat illness using methods that sit outside of conventional medicine. The use of these therapies (often alongside conventional medicine) is popular in the UK. But are complementary therapies really effective? This page explains more about complementary therapies, and it examines a few of them in detail to see whether they can really help.

A man sat at his computer

Details

  • About conventional medicine What is conventional medicine?

    When you use regulated healthcare services in the UK – for example your local GP surgery, health centre or hospital – the vast majority of the time you’re diagnosed and treated according to the principles of what we might call conventional medicine. For a treatment to be offered, there needs to be evidence that it’s beneficial for the problem being treated, and that these benefits outweigh any risks.

    For a medicine, this means it has been through extensive clinical trials. In these trials, the conditions are controlled very carefully and the medicine has to consistently show that it works on multiple occasions. For surgical procedures, outcomes are measured over time to inform when surgery should be used to try and treat a problem.

    An organisation called the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) reviews treatments for conditions and issues guidelines for medical professionals on their use. It looks closely at all the evidence around how effective a treatment is. It also considers how cost-effective it is. For some of the therapies described here, we’ve outlined NICE’s position.

  • About complementary therapies What are complementary therapies?

    Complementary therapies are methods of trying to treat illnesses, and these methods fall outside of conventional medicine.

    The word ‘complementary’ refers to the fact that they may be used in addition to the conventional medicine approaches advised by medical professionals.

    Some practitioners use these therapies on their own, instead of conventional medicine. This use makes it an alternative therapy rather than a complementary therapy. Remember: these therapies should never replace treatments prescribed by a medically qualified professional. We advise not using them as alternative therapies. It’s important to let your doctor know about any problems you’re having before seeking treatment with unconventional therapies.

    Some complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and reflexology, are based on older or traditional forms of medicine. Others, such as osteopathy and chiropractic, are more recent developments. Things like herbal medicine can be seen as a very rough precursor to modern medicine; there are many medicines that have been discovered through understanding the effects of natural substances. Herbal medicines can be seen as ‘unrefined’ medications, with varying doses and sometimes with other ingredients in them.

  • Popularity Why are complementary therapies so popular?

    Research carried out by YouGov in 2015 showed the popularity of complementary and alternative therapies in the UK. Half of respondents said they thought herbal medicine is effective for treating illness. Around four in 10 said they thought homeopathy could be effective. Many people anecdotally refer to a time when a complementary therapy has helped them –you might know someone who swears by a particular treatment.

    There are good reasons why complementary treatments (some of which have no clinical evidence to support them), might appear to have been helpful for an individual. One of these is the ‘placebo effect’.

    The placebo effect refers to the fact that when someone expects their symptoms to improve, they do improve. So, when someone undergoes a treatment that they think will have a certain benefit, they may experience this benefit, but not because the therapy has actually been clinically effective. This is something that’s been observed in medicine for hundreds of years, and is proven to exist through experiments. But the reasons for it aren’t well understood.

  • Accessing complementary therapies How can I access complementary therapies?

    Most complementary therapies can be accessed privately through clinics, practitioners and stores. In some scenarios, your doctor may refer you for complementary therapy funded by the NHS, but this is very rare.

    When choosing a practitioner for a complementary therapy, it’s important to do so carefully. The more widely practised therapies have governing or regulatory bodies. These bodies might be a good place to start to understand how practitioners in the field are regulated and registered, and where to find trusted practitioners. Where relevant, we have included some of these in the sections below.

    You may also find the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) useful. They are a voluntary regulator for practitioners of complementary therapies. Visit the CNHC site for more information.

  • Aromatherapy Aromatherapy

    Aromatherapy is a therapy that uses fragrant oils extracted from plants. They can be inhaled, used as massage oils, applied as a cream, or added to a warm bath. Some aromatherapy products are available for use at home, or you might see an aromatherapist for an appointment.

    Aromatherapy is generally used for relaxation, but there are also claims that it can help to ease specific symptoms or illnesses. In particular, people may try and use it for:

    • long-lasting pain
    • stress, anxiety and depression
    • indigestion
    • cognitive disorders
    • burns and blisters
    • skin infections

    There’s no evidence to show that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of illness. Some studies have suggested that it may promote relaxation and help to relieve anxiety for some people, but more research is needed to be sure. NICE recommends that it should be tried for people with dementia who are experiencing agitation, if other approaches aren’t working. It may also be used for someone with cancer, particularly at the end of their life, to try and improve quality of life.

    Some aromatherapy preparations can cause side-effects for certain people, including some that are very serious. If you have an illness, it’s important that you consult with your doctor before trying aromatherapy. And remember that it should not be used in place of any conventional treatment you’ve been prescribed. If you’re using aromatherapy products at home, make sure you follow the instructions carefully.

    Find out more about aromatherapy.

  • Acupuncture Acupuncture

    Acupuncture is an ancient traditional Chinese medicine that uses needles inserted into specific points in the body. The original idea was to restore balance to different ‘energies’ in the body. It’s still widely used, and is one of the most well-known and popular complementary therapies. Around 13 in 20 respondents to the YouGov poll said they think it’s effective.

    It may be used for general relaxation and wellbeing. Practitioners also claim acupuncture is useful for a wide range of problems. Illnesses that people try to treat with acupuncture include:

    • aches and pain (especially back, knee, neck, jaw pain)
    • headaches and migraine
    • sickness after surgery or during chemotherapy
    • substance addiction
    • carpal tunnel syndrome
    • asthma
    • stroke
    • arthritis
    • bowel or bladder problems

    There’s very little high-quality evidence for acupuncture being clinically effective, and it’s an area of ongoing debate. Some studies have shown promising results, but more research is needed. Areas where there may be some benefit include:

    • Headaches – It may be effective for treating and preventing headaches and migraine. NICE recommends acupuncture in this context.
    • Sickness associated with surgery or chemotherapy – It may produce results similar to anti-sickness medicines.

    Acupuncture is quite safe and tends not to produce side-effects. However, it must be done by a properly trained practitioner. It’s not completely risk-free, and it’s not suitable for everyone, so make sure you speak to your doctor before deciding to have acupuncture.

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

    Find out more about acupuncture.

  • St John's wort St John's wort

    St John’s wort is a herbal remedy extracted from a wild plant. It has been used for hundreds of years to try to treat depression. You can buy it without a prescription. Studies have shown that in some circumstances it can be beneficial for adults with mild to moderate depression. However, NICE doesn’t recommend prescribing it, and your doctor won’t advise that you use it. This is because the products available vary in how strong they are, so it’s not possible to know what a safe dosage is. St John’s wort can also cause serious problems if it’s taken alongside conventional medicines. Sometimes active ingredients in the St John’s wort preparation can react with the conventional medicine, causing adverse effects. It can also make hormonal contraceptives not work. These reactions and adverse effects aren’t well understood, so it’s safer to avoid St John’s wort altogether.

  • Homeopathy 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, when given in very small doses, can cure the same symptoms. So homeopathic medicines contain a tiny amount of an active ingredient, heavily diluted. Practitioners claim it can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including:

    • eczema
    • depression and anxiety
    • menopausal symptoms
    • allergies
    • bowel problems including Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
    • arthritis
    • asthma
    • migraine and headaches

    There is no modern scientific basis for the theory behind homeopathy and there is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating any condition. NICE does not recommend homeopathy at all, though it can (very rarely) be accessed through the NHS.

    The placebo effect (see ‘Why are complementary therapies so popular?’ above) may explain why homeopathy is still quite popular.

  • Massage therapy Massage therapy

    Massage is a therapy where a practitioner manipulates the soft tissues of the body, usually with their hands. It’s mainly used for relaxation and general wellbeing, but also to manage pain. It’s a very broad term covering lots of different types of practice, so it’s hard to make general statements about how effective it is. It has been shown to have some benefit for:

    • sore muscles
    • back pain
    • fibromyalgia

    It may also be used to promote general wellbeing for people with long-term conditions like cancer or dementia.

  • Osteopathy and chiropractic Osteopathy and chiropractic

    These are manual therapies, where practitioners use their hands to work with joints, muscles and tissues. They’re generally used to try and treat conditions relating to the muscles, bones and joints, but people may try them for other conditions.

    Manual therapy, in general, is known to be effective for some conditions:

    • low back pain (but only when used alongside exercise)
    • osteoarthritis (but only when used alongside exercise)
    • long-term neck pain with an unclear cause

    But this doesn’t necessarily mean that osteopathy or chiropractic will be a good option for you. If you have problems with your muscles, bones or joints, it’s important you discuss your symptoms with your GP first to see whether it might be appropriate.

    Find out more about osteopathy.

    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

    Reflexology is another manual therapy. It works on the belief that specific areas of the foot correspond to different parts of the body. Stimulating these areas of the foot is supposed to be able to treat the corresponding areas. This idea has no basis in science and there is no evidence for the clinical effectiveness of reflexology. 

  • Other helpful websites Other helpful websites

    Further information

    • Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
      020 3668 0406
      www.cnhc.org.uk

    Sources

    • Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last reviewed July 2015
    • Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Patient Plus. http://patient.info/patientplus
    • Many believe alternative medicines are effective. YouGov. https://yougov.co.uk, published March 2015
    • What we do. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. www.nice.org.uk [accessed 15 December 2016]
    • The NHS Constitution for England. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, updated October 2015
    • Oxford Handbook of Clinical Pharmacy (2 ed, online). Oxford Medicine Online. http://oxfordmedicine.com, published January 2012
    • Placebos. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last reviewed April 2013
    • Thinking about psychiatry. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (online, 3rd ed). Oxford Medicine Online. http://oxfordmedicine.com, published March 2013
    • Complementary and alternative medicine. NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk, last updated February 2016
    • Aromatherapy.  Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council. www.cnhc.org.uk [accessed 19 December 2016]
    • Medicines and prescribing. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (4th ed, online). Oxford Medicine Online. http://oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
    • Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ®) – Health Professional Version. National Cancer Institute. www.cancer.gov, updated April 2016
    • Dementia: supporting people with dementia and their carers in health and social care. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, updated September 2016
    • Acupuncture. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last revised July 2015
    • Sierpina V, Frenkel M. Acupuncture: A Clinical Review. South Med J 2005;98(3):330-337
    • Headaches in over 12s: diagnosis and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, updated November 2015
    • St John’s Wort. Patient Plus. http://patient.info/patientplus, last checked April 2014
    • St. John’s Wort. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last reviewed January 2016
    • Herbal medicines. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Pharmacy (2nd ed, online). Oxford Medicine Online. http://oxfordmedicine.com, published January 2012
    • Depressive illness. Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (3rd ed, online). Oxford Medicine Online. http://oxfordmedicine.com, published March 2013
    • Depression in adults: recognition and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, updated April 2016
    • St John's Wort – Interactions. British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk/formulary/bnf [accessed 21 December 2016]
    • Homeopathy. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last reviewed July 2015
    • Helping people. British Homeopathic Association. www.britishhomeopathic.org [accessed 21 December 2016]
    • Homeopathy. NHS Choices. www.nhs.uk, last reviewed February 2015
    • Nursing patients with pain. Oxford Handbook of Adult Nursing (online). Oxford Medicine Online. http://oxfordmedicine.com, published August 2010
    • Massage Therapy. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last reviewed July 2015
    • Massage, Traction, and Manipulation. Medscape. http://emedicine.medscape.com, updated November 2015
    • Massage Therapy. The Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council. www.cnhc.org.uk [accessed 22 December 2016]
    • Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. www.nice.org.uk, published November 2016
    • Chiropractic. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last reviewed July 2015
    • About osteopathy. General Osteopathic Council. www.osteopathy.org.uk, accessed 22 December 2016
    • About Chiropractic. British Chiropractic Association. https://chiropractic-uk.co.uk, accessed 22 December 2016
    • Osteoarthritis: care and management . National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). www.nice.org.uk, published February 2014 
    • Neck pain – non-specific. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. https://cks.nice.org.uk, revised April 2015
    • Reflexology. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, reviewed July 2015
     
  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Nick Ridgman, Head of Health Content, June 2017
    Expert reviewer Dr Luke James, Medical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
    Next review due June 2020

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.

  • Information Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.

    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
    verify here.

    This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.

What our readers say about us

But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.

Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.

It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.

Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.

Meet the team

Nick Ridgman

Nick Ridgman
Head of Health Content







  • Dylan Merkett – Lead Editor
  • Graham Pembrey - Lead Editor
  • Laura Blanks – Specialist Editor, Quality
  • Michelle Harrison – Specialist Editor, Insights
  • Natalie Heaton – Specialist Editor, User Experience
  • Fay Jeffery – Web Editor
  • Marcella McEvoy – Specialist Editor, Content Portfolio
  • Alice Rossiter – Specialist Editor (on Maternity Leave)

Our core principles

All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.

Readable

In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.

Reliable

We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.

Relevant

We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.

Our accreditation

Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.

  • The Information Standard certification scheme

    You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.

    It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.

    Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards

    We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: healthinfo@bupa.com. Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Battle Bridge House
300 Grays Inn Road
London
WC1X 8DU

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page.

For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

ˆ We may record or monitor our calls.