NIH Pushes Nondrug Pain Relief Approaches


Scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are adding to the opioid epidemic conversation with a review highlighting the benefits of toga, tai chi, and acupuncture.

pain management, chronic pain, exercise, yoga

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times – new pain relief approaches are needed to counteract the opioid epidemic. Scientists from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are adding to the conversation with a review highlighting the benefits of yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture.

“Our goal for this study was to provide relevant, high-quality information for primary care providers and for patients who suffer from chronic pain,” lead author, Richard L. Nahin, PhD, NCCIH’s lead epidemiologist, said in a news release.

When physicians are making treatment decisions for someone with chronic pain, a lack of knowledge outside of prescriptions could cause a barrier. It’s well known that exercise is important for patients with pain, but matching the right kind with the right condition continues to be assessed.

Published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the NCCIH team analyzed 105 controlled studies conducted in the United States within the past 50 years. The trials examined seven pain relief approaches: yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques (such as meditation), natural product supplements (such as chondroitin and glucosamine). The patients had one or more pain conditions including: back pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and severe headaches and migraine.

So which methods actually worked? Results varied by method and pain condition, but the following were effective:

  • Acupuncture and yoga for back pain
  • Acupuncture and tai chi for knee osteoarthritis
  • Massage therapy for neck pain (short-term benefit with adequate doses)
  • Relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine

Massage therapy, spinal manipulation, and osteopathic manipulation looked to help back pain as well, but the evidence wasn’t as strong. The same was found when it came to tai chi and relaxation techniques for people with fibromyalgia.

“These data can equip providers and patients with the information they need to have informed conversations regarding nondrug approaches for treatment of specific pain conditions,” said David Shurtleff, PhD, deputy director of NCCIH.

Many patients don’t experience pain relief for prescription drugs, so exploring these alternative approaches is important, Shurtleff concluded.

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