Therapy and alternative treatments


Non-drug therapy and alternative treatments can help you manage pain through movement, body work, supplements, and surgery. These work best when you care for yourself properly at home, and add medication as needed. You may find an increase in your pain when you start therapy but this usually gets better.

Physical therapy

woman doing a ball stretchMovement, flexibility, and strength are important parts of treating pain.

In a typical physical therapy visit, you can expect your therapist to use any of these methods:

  • Exercise
  • Stretching
  • Manual therapy (moving your body for you)
  • Heat or cold
  • Mild electrical stimulation
  • Home stretches and exercises

Your therapist will also give you exercises and other ways to help with your pain at home.


There are psychotherapies shown to improve coping and management of chronic pain. These include cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Psychotherapists can help you think about your pain in new ways. They can also help you cope with depression, anxiety, and other feelings that go along with your pain.

Your therapist may also lead you in relaxation exercises, meditation, or focusing techniques to help you feel more in control. They may work with you to set goals for pacing and gradually returning to your activity level. They may also help you with addiction concerns.

Find a Behavioral Health, Psychiatry, or Mental Health department near you.

Complementary and alternative therapies

Research suggests that non-medical treatments (or "complementary care") can be effective in managing pain.

  • Massage helps relax tense muscles.
  • Acupuncture uses very thin needles, pressure, heat, or electricity to stimulate natural chemicals in your body that help reduce pain.
  • Chiropractors adjust your body to help align your spine and other joints.
  • Biofeedback teaches you to use your mind to control how your body feels.
  • Guided imagery is a relaxation technique that helps you focus your mind away from your pain.

Learn about other types of complementary and alternative care.

Supplements and creams

Many non-medication supplements and creams are thought to help reduce pain.

  • Glucosamine plus chondroitin supplements are used to relieve joint pain and stiffness. It may take up to 4 weeks to feel improvements. Though it varies by brand, most of these supplements are made from shellfish so check the label carefully if you have shellfish allergies.
  • Capsaicin cream is made from peppers. Some brands also include numbing agents (local anesthetics). It can be rubbed into the skin as needed to help with joint or muscle pain.  Test a small area of skin to check for reactions like severe redness or burning. 

Visit the natural medicines database for more non-prescription options.

Always tell your physician about any dietary supplements, herbal products, or over-the-counter medications you are taking (or considering taking), because they may change the way other medications work.


In severe cases of arthritis — when the joints are seriously damaged and causing extreme pain — surgery may be considered to replace joints.

Common arthritis surgeries include:

Learn more about arthritis surgery options.

Reviewed by: Benjamin Balderson, MD, January 2019

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