Key points | Complementary treatments and musculoskeletal conditions | What’s the evidence? | Types of complementary treatments | Do your research | Finding a qualified practitioner | Ask questions | Other tips | Be careful | Professional associations | Where to get help | How we can help | More to explore | Download PDF
Complementary and alternative treatments include a wide range of therapies, medicines, products or practices that aren’t currently considered to be a conventional or mainstream medical treatment. They include acupuncture, supplements, meditation, massage, herbal treatments, aromatherapy and naturopathy.
The word complementary usually refers to treatments that are used alongside conventional medicine, whereas alternative usually means the treatment is used instead of conventional medicine.
For ease of use, we’ll use the term complementary treatment when referring to all types of complementary or alternative treatments.
Complementary treatments are widely used by people with arthritis, back pain and other musculoskeletal conditions to:
Many people use complementary treatments because they believe they’re safer, or more natural than conventional medicine. This isn’t necessarily true.
As with any treatment, complementary treatments can cause harm and can make you unwell if not taken correctly, if they interact with one of your other medications, or if the practitioner you see isn’t properly trained or qualified.
While many people feel that using complementary treatments has been beneficial for their health and wellbeing, there isn’t as much evidence to support its use for musculoskeletal conditions as there is for conventional medicines.
For many complementary treatments there just aren’t enough well-designed randomised controlled trials to show whether or not these therapies are effective. And if they are effective, for which conditions or symptoms.
That being said, some types of complementary treatments show promise and may be helpful for managing your condition. More and more research is now focusing on these treatments. But at the moment the evidence is still lacking so it’s wise to proceed carefully and with caution.
There are a lot of complementary treatments available. We’ve provided information on some of the more commonly used types of complementary therapies here, but it’s not an exhaustive list.
You can find out more about these and other treatments, as well as information about current research, side effects, and other things to consider in the More to explore section at the end.
Acupuncture – has been used for thousands of years and involves the insertion of fine needles in various locations on your body. They correspond to important points for treatment in Chinese medicine. Some acupuncturists will use laser in place of needles.
Alexander technique – involves learning to move, sit and stand in a way that minimises strain and pressure on your body.
Aromatherapy – is the use of aromatic essential oils to promote emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. The oils are diluted and used in a variety of ways including: inhalation, massage, in the bath.
Chiropractic – this treatment involves manipulation and manual adjustment of your spine. It’s based on the premise that if your body, especially the spine, is out of alignment, it can affect the health and function of other parts of your body.
Copper bracelets – are worn by people to attempt to reduce pain and stiffness, however there’s no evidence that they have any effect on your body at all.
Feldenkrais – uses gentle movements to relieve physical tension and stress, and develop increased flexibility, coordination and self-awareness.
Homeopathy – is a treatment based on the theory that ‘like cures like’, or that a disease or health issue can be cured by extremely small amounts of a substance that causes similar symptoms.
Magnets – are used in a variety of products including bracelets and mattresses, with the suggestion that they provide pain relief.
Massage – is a hands-on therapy that involves rubbing and manipulating the soft tissues of your body, especially your muscles. Massage can improve blood circulation, ease muscle tension and help you feel more relaxed. There are a variety of different types of massage available.
Meditation – is a practice that involves focusing your mind on a sound, your breathing or the present moment. It’s used to help improve sleep, mood, relieve stress and reduce pain.
Naturopathy – is a treatment based on the theory that your body can heal itself using exercise, nutrition, vitamins, herbs and massage.
Osteopathy – is a hands-on treatment based on the premise that your body’s wellbeing depends on your bones, muscles and other soft tissues functioning smoothly together. It uses physical manipulation, massage and stretching.
Reflexology – is a hands-on treatment where pressure is applied to specific points of your feet or hands. These points are believed to match up with other parts of your body. The idea is that this pressure or massage can treat health problems in that corresponding area.
Tai chi – is a low impact exercise that uses gentle movement, focused breathing and mental focus. It promotes correct body posture and balance and can be practiced by people of all ages and fitness levels.
Vitamins and herbal supplements – there are a wide variety of supplements that claim they can provide some benefit for a variety of musculoskeletal conditions. They include capsaicin cream, glucosamine, chondroitin, SAM-e, arnica, turmeric and ginger to name a few. Before adding a supplement to your medication regime, talk with your doctor about the potential harms and benefits and whether it’s right for you. It’s important to know that some supplements can interact with medications you may be taking, or may affect another health condition.
Yoga – involves physical postures, meditation, breathing and mental exercises that promote flexibility, relaxation and strength.
Before you start using any new complementary treatment, do your research, talk to your doctor about it, ask lots of questions and ensure you use a qualified practitioner or therapist.
Some treatments may help you manage your symptoms (e.g. pain, stress), while others will have no effect. So it’s important that you research the treatment thoroughly.
When doing your research, ask yourself:
If you answered no to any of these questions, you should be wary of the treatment. Discuss it with your doctor or specialist before you go any further.
Contacting a professional association is a good starting point for finding a qualified practitioner or therapist (see our list below).
Your doctor and other health professionals (e.g. nurse, pharmacist), your family or friends may also be able to recommend someone.
When making enquiries of a potential practitioner, it’s important that you ask lots of questions. For example:
You can also contact the professional association and check their list of members, and visit the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency website and search for the practitioner.
As with any treatment, there may be side effects or risks. Any medicine, pill, tonic, tincture or supplement you drink or swallow has the potential to make you unwell. It may interact with other medications or supplements you’re taking and change the way the medicine works – either making them less effective or by making them stronger.
If you have conditions such as osteoporosis or inflammatory arthritis, you should avoid manipulative treatments such as chiropractic and osteopathy.
Call our MSK Help Line and speak to our nurses.
Phone 1800 263 265 or email firstname.lastname@example.org