Use of Complementary Therapies on the Rise: Study

Use of Complementary Therapies on the Rise: Study

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Emma Suttie

Emma Suttie


Updated: 2/19/2024

More Americans are opting for complementary therapies, according to a new analysis from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The findings show a significant increase in the use of “complementary health approaches,” particularly in the management of pain over the last two decades.
The research was conducted by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and the resulting study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Jan. 25.
The data used in the analysis was collected from the National Health Interview Survey from three points in time—2002, 2012, and 2022—and evaluated the use of seven different complementary health approaches, which include:
  1. Massage therapy
  2. Meditation
  3. Yoga
  4. Acupuncture
  5. Naturopathy
  6. Chiropractic care
  7. Guided imagery/progressive muscle relaxation

The Study Findings

According to a news release issued by the NIH, the key findings from the analysis include:
  • “The percentage of individuals who reported using at least one of the seven approaches increased from 19.2% in 2002 to 36.7% in 2022.
  • The use of yoga, meditation, and massage therapy experienced the most significant growth from 2002 to 2022.
  • Use of yoga increased from 5% in 2002 to 15.8% in 2022.
  • Meditation became the most used approach in 2022, with an increase from 7.5% in 2002 to 17.3% in 2022.
  • Acupuncture, increasingly covered by insurance, saw an increase from 1% in 2002 to 2.2% in 2022.
  • Additionally, the analysis showed a notable rise in the proportion of U.S. adults using complementary health approaches specifically for pain management. Among participants using any of the complementary health approaches, the percentage reporting use for pain management increased from 42.3% in 2002 to 49.2% in 2022.”
Overall, use of all seven complementary therapies increased over the twenty-year period, going from 19.2 percent in 2002 to 36.7 percent in 2022—an increase of more than seventeen percent. This suggests that more and more people are seeking out alternative options outside of the allopathic model to improve their health and deal with pain.

The Pain Problem

As more Americans struggle with pain, the use of pain medications is also on the rise.
In 2021, approximately 51.6 million people, representing 20.9 percent of U.S. adults, experienced chronic pain—defined as pain lasting more than three months. An additional 17.1 million, or 6.9 percent had high-impact chronic pain, which is “chronic pain that results in substantial restriction to daily activities,” according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A study from the National Center for Health Statistics found that between 2015 and 2018, 10.7 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 20 “had used one or more prescription pain medications [opioids and nonopioids] in the past 30 days.”
Another study from 2023 concluded that in the last 11 years, there had been an increase in the use of prescription pain medications, including NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs which include ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin), neuropathic agents (for pain originating in the nerves or nervous system), muscle relaxants, and opioids.
Although pain medications may offer temporary relief, they come with their own dangers, which include undesirable side effects and the risk of addiction and overdose—a growing issue in the United States. Between 1999 and 2021, nearly 280,000 Americans died of overdoses due to prescription opioid overdoses, according to the CDC.
Many complimentary therapies seek out and treat the root causes of illness rather than treating its symptoms— working with the body and tapping into its innate healing abilities. Although there are many factors involved, this may be one reason for the uptake in people choosing these therapies, as they move away from medications and towards the potential for healing the underlying causes of their pain and other health issues.

In Search of Complimentary Care

Statistics are one thing, but what does treating pain actually look like for everyday people looking for relief?
James Morrow is a massage therapist with a clinic in Central Florida. When asked how many of the people he sees are coming to him for problems with pain, he told the Epoch Times, “I would say 25 percent of my clientele come in for some pain management—most come in with the realization that massage is an effective tool for overall health.”
“Out of the 25 percent of pain management clientele, all are taking some pain medication,” he added.
Mr. Morrow also noted that 90 percent of his clients are using therapies in addition to massage for their care, including acupuncture, chiropractic, and saunas. He explained that he recommends several additional options to his clients including hot tubs, grounding, ice or heat therapy, and yoga for 30 minutes to one hour once a week, noting that “All are holistic options that can be low-cost.”
As for the NIH analysis, the particularly dramatic increase in the use of complementary therapies for managing pain suggests that people may be exploring these options as alternatives to medications and more invasive procedures, like surgery.
Over the 20 years the analysis evaluated, they found increased use of complementary therapies specifically for pain. For example, those using yoga to alleviate pain increased from 11.4 percent to 28.8 percent over the twenty years, and chiropractic care used for pain conditions saw the greatest increase—growing from 78.6 percent in 2002 to 85.7 percent in 2022.

7 Complementary Health Approaches

For those who may not be familiar with the therapies the analysis evaluated, here is a brief description of each, along with some of the common conditions they treat:

1. Massage Therapy

Massage therapy is manipulation of the body’s soft tissues—which include muscles, tendons, and ligaments. There are a wide variety of techniques and may involve the massage therapist using their hands, forearms, elbows, knees, or a device to apply pressure to certain areas of the body to achieve a feeling of relaxation and well-being. Oils or creams can be used to enhance its effects, as well as medicated oils that help specific ailments, like pain.
Massage therapy is known for its ability to relax the body, as well as help with injuries, tight, stiff, and sore muscles as well as pain. It is also used to treat mental as well as emotional issues like stress, anxiety, and depression, as it helps to calm the mind while relaxing the body.

2. Meditation

Meditation originated in ancient India, and is described in the Vedas—religious texts that were thought to be written in approximately 1500–1200 B.C.
The American Meditation Society defines meditation as “the simple and effortless process of connecting with the silence and peace within. During meditation, we direct our attention inward rather than engaging in the outside world of activity. We connect with a deeper level of ourselves, the stillness within, and gradually over time begin to live from a place of steadiness and inner peace.”
There are many different kinds of meditation, from transcendental, to vipassana to mindfulness.
Meditation is often used for reducing stress and anxiety, improving sleep, enhancing memory and focus, and cultivating self-awareness.

3. Yoga

Yoga is an ancient Indian practice with physical, mental, and spiritual aspects, and often involves different movements or postures that are practiced with a focus on the breath to achieve health and well-being. Yoga has been practiced in India for thousands of years, and there are many different styles.
In the last century, yoga has gained increasing popularity in the West, becoming a common practice for those looking to stay in shape, increase their flexibility and strength, and achieve inner calm and focus.

4. Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine, sterile needles into the skin at specific points on the body to normalize the body’s processes and stimulate healing. According to Chinese medicine, Qi, or the body’s innate “life force” energy, must be flowing freely throughout the body for health to be maintained, and one of the reasons illness develops is a blockage in the flow of this vital energy.
Acupuncture is one of the modalities used in Chinese medicine, in addition to Chinese herbal medicine and Tui Na (Chinese medical massage), and has been practiced for more than 4000 years.
Numerous studies have shown it is an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments, especially pain.

5. Naturopathy

“Naturopathy is a system of healthcare with a deep history of traditional philosophies and practices, medically trained practitioners, and a breadth of natural treatment options to serve patients,” according to the World Naturopathic Federation.
Naturopathic doctors have a holistic approach and treat the person, rather than the disease or symptoms, and they can treat both acute and chronic conditions. You can see a naturopathic doctor for any of the reasons you would seek out conventional medical care.

6. Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic is “a health profession concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, and the effects of these disorders on the function of the nervous system and general health. There is an emphasis on manual treatments including spinal adjustment and other joint and soft-tissue manipulation,” according to the World Federation of Chiropractic.
Chiropractors treat the musculoskeletal system by manipulation of the muscles, bones, and joints, especially those of the spine.
Some common reasons to seek out chiropractic care are limited mobility in the joints, physical injuries, problems with posture or alignment of the spine, and pain in the muscles, bones, or joints (like knee or lower back pain).

7. Guided Imagery and Progressive Muscle Relaxation

According to an article in Positive Psychology, “guided imagery is rooted in the practice of multi-sensory visualization, which involves guiding a client on an imaginary journey with their eyes closed following some short breathwork exercises to induce relaxation. It can inspire and induce inner transformation to drive desired behavioral change in areas such as addiction recovery, sports psychology, and stress management.”
The same article states that research has found guided imagery beneficial for stress, anxiety, depression, grief, the management of pain (including chronic pain), and to promote healing while undergoing cancer treatment.
According to the American Psychological Association, progressive muscle relaxation is “a technique in which the individual is trained to relax the entire body by becoming aware of tensions in various muscle groups and then relaxing one muscle group at a time. In some cases, the individual consciously tenses specific muscles or muscle groups and then releases tension to achieve relaxation throughout the body.”
The main condition treated by progressive muscle relaxation is muscle tension due to stress and anxiety.

Why the Rise?

So, why has there been such an uptake in the use of these complementary health approaches in the last two decades?
Although the analysis didn’t evaluate the reasons why more Americans are choosing complementary therapies, it does state that the increase may be due to factors such as people looking for alternatives to pain medications; that in the past twenty years, there have been more high-quality studies demonstrating the efficacy of many of the complementary therapies that were evaluated; as well as the addition of many of the above therapies to the CDC’s clinical practice guidelines.
The analysis also notes that an increase in insurance coverage for treatments like acupuncture has expanded access for those looking for pain relief.
Another contributing factor may be increased awareness among the public of a growing number of complementary therapies for common ailments—and pain in particular—that may offer a natural approach and help to avoid more drastic options, like surgery.
According to Mr. Morrow, the clients he sees for pain are indeed seeking alternatives to more invasive measures.
“All of my clientele coming in for pain management are looking for alternatives to surgery—the risk and thoughts of surgery are overwhelming. That being said, some have had surgery and are doing better but still, come in for treatment. Others have had results that are not so good and come in for even temporary relief.”

Final Thoughts

Although the exact reasons for the increase in the use of complementary health approaches may not be entirely clear, that people are using more of these types of therapies demonstrates that consumers have a growing number of options for the care of their health—and they are using them.
Emma Suttie

Emma Suttie


Emma is an acupuncture physician and has written extensively about health for multiple publications over the past decade. She is now a health reporter for The Epoch Times, covering Eastern medicine, nutrition, trauma, and lifestyle medicine.

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