Complementary Medicine: What Works and What Doesn’t


Complementary medicine is not most people’s first choice. My pain started when I was 15: nobody knew what was wrong or how to fix it (I didn’t get a diagnosis or explanation for well over a decade), and after all the doctors threw up their hands, we were grasping at straws. My mother, bless her, dragged me to everything she could think of to help me, even stuff like hypnosis that I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve tried (and retried) many more options. Some of them helped; most of them didn’t. The majority of complementary treatments I’ve tried have been an expensive way of pissing money away. But there ARE things that can really, truly help. Everyone is different, and everyone’s pain is different. But here’s what helped me– and what didn’t.

What is complementary medicine?

To put it simply, it’s a treatment that you use in conjunction with conventional medicine. Just as alternative medicine is used as a replacement / alternative for conventional medical treatment, complementary medicine complements the treatment plan your doctor has in place. The term “integrated health” is sometimes used to describe a holistic approach where conventional and complementary approaches are used together in a coordinated way. Out-of-pocket spending on these approaches for Americans age 4 and older amounts to an estimated $30.2 billion per year, according to the 2012 NHIS— almost 10% of OOP spending on healthcare. Money is a huge concern when discussing complementary health: while insurance may cover some of these treatments, most of them are going to be coming from your pocket.

NGL: this is much of complementary medicine

I’ll just put this out at the very start: I have a very low tolerance for woo. If it helps you? Godspeed! I’m not going to pooh-pooh the idea of finding help wherever you can. But I write about and am a big fan of science so I do like a treatment that’s supported by research. 

Just how many types of complementary medicine have I tried?

I used this list of complementary therapies as a guide. The below list is at least most of the complementary therapies I”ve tried in the last 20 years: the helpful, the not helpful, the scams and the genuine relief. I plan to write individual posts about the few treatments that truly helped me and at least one post about all the ones that didn’t. But here they are:

  • Chiropractor*
  • Hypnosis
  • Biofeedback
  • Aura / energy work
  • Reiki
  • Trigger point injections
  • Massage
  • Myofascial body work
  • Cranio-sacral body work 
  • PT (esp water therapy)
  • Occupational therapy
  • Acupuncture/electroacupuncture
  • Cupping 
  • Dance therapy (sorta)
  • Diet changes & food supplements
  • Relaxation / Guided imagery
  • Heat therapy (particularly ultrasound) 
  • Meditation, mindfulness and relaxation techniques 
  • Reflexology
  • Steam room
  • Water therapy 
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Mental health treatment

* I have been in constant pain since I was 15 because of a chiropractor. Please, please, please do not go to a chiropractor, and if you do, look up their education and training, and even then do not let them crack your neck. (There’ll be a post about that too, eventually, but I wanted to say it here first.)

So what worked?

Stay tuned for specific articles about biofeedback, massage and bodywork like myofascial release, acupuncture, and mental health care as complementary medicine for chronic pain, as well as a roundup article of the other few that gave me some relief. I’m also working on a post about what treatments I feel to be the biggest waste of time and money.


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Hopefully this site will help you avoid some of the BS I’ve experienced over the last 20 years seeking treatment for my chronic pain, invisible illnesses & mental health challenges. Maybe it’ll even help you think about disability in a new way! But at the very least, I hope you learn something, and I hope it helps you feel less alone.

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