Cathy Iannetta, 44, can hardly remember a day in her life without a headache. "They started in high school, usually around the time of my period," says the Cleveland mother of two. In college, manageable pain morphed into debilitating migraines that worsened after she had her first child 12 years ago.
"By the end of each day, I was nauseous and dizzy and my head was throbbing," she says. Over the years, doctors prescribed a slew of medications. Neurological and blood workups ruled out serious disease. She knew her triggers—strong smells, certain foods, lack of sleep—and tried to avoid them. Yet nothing helped. Her breaking point came in September 2015, when she had to go to the emergency room for an injection of a painkiller during a prolonged migraine attack.
Soon after, a friend who worked at the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute suggested acupuncture. "I was skeptical, but I was desperate," says Cathy. After a thorough evaluation, she began weekly sessions. "I felt better after the first appointment— I was shocked," she says. Even more amazing: The relief lasted. Instead of weekly meds, she took them only three times in the course of her initial six-week treatment. These days, she gets acupuncture every three weeks and rarely suffers a migraine.
People who live with chronic pain— an estimated 100 million Americans, two-thirds of them women, per the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies—often shuttle from one doctor to another, scour the Internet for breakthroughs and test the wacky ideas someone's best friend's sister-in-law swore worked for her. At some point in their odyssey, they'll likely hear about integrative medicine, a fusion of conventional Western medicine with practices rooted in ancient Chinese and other Eastern approaches.
A growing body of research shows that certain alternative treatments can lead to a significant reduction in pain. Many prestigious hospitals and medical centers now prescribe them in tandem with, or even instead of, traditional ones. "If medication doesn't work or causes intolerable side effects, we'll try acupuncture or meditation," says David Katz, MD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "I don't care if a treatment comes from a test tube or a tree leaf, as long as it's safe." Per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some 33 million Americans are turning to alterna-therapies—which are increasingly covered by health insurance. Here, learn about common ones.
Try if you have low back and neck pain, Osteoarthritis, Fibromyalgia, Tennis elbow, Headaches, Severe menstrual cramps, or Hot flashes.
How it works: An acupuncturist inserts ultrathin needles into specific points on the body, typically in a 30- to 45-minute session. The needles stimulate nerve fibers to release endorphins—brain chemicals that help reduce inflammation and pain severity, explains Jeffrey Ngeow, MD, a pain specialist at the Integrative Care Center at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. A study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that it can significantly reduce hot flashes for up to 60% of menopausal women.
Must-know info: Look for an acupuncturist who has an established practice (at least five years) and ask your doctor for a recommendation. In most states, acupuncturists who do not have a medical degree need to be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
DIY fix: Acupressure—which, like acupuncture, works by stimulating key points in the body—could bring relief. If you have a headache, apply pressure to the inner corner of the eyebrows with your pointer fingers or to the area between the temples and your ears, depending on where the pain is most intense, recommends acupuncturist Lisa Rosenberger, founder of East West Integrative Health Clinic in Branford, CT. Hold for 5 seconds, release and repeat two more times.
Try if you have headaches, back and neck pain, Fibromyalgia, GI disorders such as IBS and Crohn's Disease.
How they work: Here's a look at three proven forms: Mindfulness-based stress reduction helps you focus attention on the present, so you can clearheadedly observe problems and work to solve them. In guided imagery, a teacher coaxes you to imagine a peaceful, calming scene. "How you think about pain has a huge impact on how much you hurt," says Adam Perlman, MD, MPH, executive director of Duke Integrative Medicine. Transcendental meditation uses a mantra (a special word) as a focal point to quiet the mind; one study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that participants who meditated had a greater reduction in pain than those who didn't.
Must-know info: No single method is considered better than another, so it's a good idea to test-drive different options and decide which one you like best. Check with your local yoga studio to see if it offers mind/body options and if not, ask staffers if they can point you in the direction of a local practitioner. You can also find listings in your area on the Mindbody app (available for free on iTunes).
DIY fix: Try progressive muscle relaxation, says Dr. Perlman: "Anything that helps you relax mentally and physically can be beneficial if you're in pain, and this is easy to do." Sitting in a comfortable chair with your shoes off, tense and relax the muscles in your toes for 5 seconds, then completely relax them for 30 seconds. Next, work your way up your legs to your rear, then up to your head.
You can also give these free apps a go: Headspace (offers daily 10-minute meditations); Stop, Breathe & Think (provides meditations based on how you mentally and physically feel); and Calm (a seven-step program).
Try it if you have pain that comes on right after a sudden movement (say, you move furniture or pickup a small child), or headaches.
How it works: Chiropractors use techniques to adjust your spine, sometimes combined with electrical stimulation, massage, heat, or ice. The theory is that pain is triggered when bones of the spine slip out of alignment, putting pressure on nerves and preventing the body from functioning normally. Fi the spine can help correct this imbalance and ease muscle spasms. According to a study in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, people with spinal, hip, and shoulder pain who first saw a chiropractor for their symptoms had similar pain relief, greater satisfaction levels, and lower overall costs compared to those who initially visited doctors.
Must-know info: If you have osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or take blood thinners, consult with a chiropractor to make sure that manipulation won't aggravate symptoms or cause complications. Your practitioner should have a degree from an accredited chiropractic school (look for "DC") and a state license. Get a referral from your doctor or browse the American Chiropractic Association directory (acatoday.org) for chiropractors in your area.
DIY fix: Make good use of a foam roller to alleviate muscle tension, says Dr. Perlman. Check out 6 Ways to Soothe Your Muscles With a Foam Roller on YouTube for more ideas.