Complementary and alternative therapies

Explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, how they are used, and where to find out more.

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List of complementary and alternative therapies

On this page you'll find information about:

If you want to learn about a therapy that isn't listed here, it might help to ask your doctor if they have any information on that particular type of therapy, and if it might be right for you.

Safety information

Most complementary and alternative therapies are considered to be safe when conducted by a trained and experienced practitioner. However, there may be times that that a certain therapy may carry higher risks for you.

For more on safety see our information on are they safe, when a herbal remedy might be unsuitable for you, and things to consider before staring a therapy.

I find that meditating has so much misinformation around it. I just like to unwind by turning everything off, closing my eyes and trying to focus on my breathing, slowly removing the negative energy and thoughts from my day.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting very fine needles in to different parts of your body (called acupuncture points). This is believed to stimulate nerves and muscles which may release natural pain-relieving chemicals.

It's based on the belief that health problems can be caused when energy (or your 'Qi') becomes 'blocked'. Acupuncture aims to unlock your energy channels to restore the flow of your Qi.

Acupuncture is mainly used for headaches or chronic pain, but some people feel it helps to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Find out more from:

 

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses essential oils (oils extracted from plants) for healing. Some people find that the smell (aroma) of particular oils helps them to relax, sleep better, relieve pain and improve low mood. For example, when used appropriately lavender and camomile essential oils are thought to be relaxing and help you sleep.

The oils can be used in many different ways, such as in creams, oil burners, massaged in to the skin or by adding drops to a warm bath.

It is possible to experience allergies or reactions to the oils, so you should speak to an aromatherapist beforehand if you have any concerns.

Find out more from:

The Aromatherapy Council

 

Ayurvedic medicine

This is based on ancient Indian theory and uses medicines made from plants and minerals to restore balance in the body. Ayurvedic medicine also includes massage and panchakarma (therapies that aim to get rid of the toxins in the body using massage and herbal oils).

Find out more from:

 

Bowen technique

The Bowen technique (named after Thomas Bowen who developed the therapy) is a kind of contact therapy, meaning the practitioner does touch you, but it is a very light touch which can be done through light clothing. They use very gentle rolling motions with pauses in between.

It's mainly used for physical problems, but some people find it reduces feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.

Find out more from:

 

Homeopathy

Homeopathy involves using extremely diluted (watered down) natural substances to treat physical and mental health problems. Homeopaths believe that the more a substance is diluted, the more effective it will be – and the less likely it will be to cause any unwanted side effects.

Some people find that trying homeopathic remedies for stress, anxiety and depression does make them feel better.

However, most doctors are sceptical about homeopathy. The NHS says that the evidence shows homeopathy works no better than a placebo (a sugar pill). It also cautions that choosing homeopathy as your main treatment may mean you don't choose other options, which could work better.

Find out more from:

 

Meditation

There are various different schools of mediation, but all aim to quieten your mind and put you into a state of calm, stillness and rest. Some types of meditation may also involve mindfulness.

While the evidence is mixed as to whether meditation is effective at treating mental health problems, many people do find it a helpful way of relaxing and managing feelings of stress and anxiety.

There are many DVDs, apps, and free online videos that can teach you meditation exercises.

Find out more from:

 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves focusing your attention to what's happening in the present moment. It aims to help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, so you can choose how to react to them calmly.

Many people find mindfulness helpful for managing negative thoughts and feelings of stress.

Find out more from:

Mindfulness helps me manage when my brain decides that a dozen ideas at once is the best way to work. It's not a ‘cure all’ for me, and I have to work at it, but it is a key part of my coping strategy now.

 

Reflexology

Reflexology is based on the idea that different points on your feet, hands, face and ears are linked to other parts of your body through your nervous system. During a typical session, a reflexologist will use their hands to apply gentle pressure to these points.

Reflexologists recommend this treatment as a way to relieve tension, improve mood and help you to sleep.

Find out more from:

 

Reiki

Reiki is a Japanese technique which involves the 'laying of hands' on different areas of the body including the head, shoulders, stomach and feet. It's based on the idea that we have a 'life force energy' that flows within our bodies. When this energy is low, it makes us more likely to become unwell. 

A Reiki treatment aims to restore life force energy to help you to heal and stay well. Some people find it makes them feel more relaxed and less stressed. 

Find out more from:

 

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)

TCM aims to rebalance the body’s energy systems, and involves acupuncture and tuina (a form of massage) as well as herbal remedies.

It has been the main medical system used in China for more than 2000 years.

Find out more from:

Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis involves putting you in a state of deep relaxation to access subconscious beliefs, thoughts and memories which may affect the way you act.

Hypnotherapists use hypnosis to help you change unwanted thoughts and behaviours by using suggestion and increasing your self-awareness. You're always in full control under hypnosis, and your therapist will only use methods that you've agreed on and feel comfortable with.

Many people find it a useful way of treating things like depression, anxiety, phobias, stress, anger, addictions and low self-esteem.

But hypnotherapy might not be suitable for you if you have a diagnosis of personality disorder (it may make your symptoms worse), or if you are due to be a witness at a trial.

Find out more from:

Hypnotherapy is less obtrusive then one would expect and is definitely NOT like the comedy hypnosis we often see on the television. It has helped me to identify areas in my life which have impacted on my mental health and has enabled me to deal with them.

Massage

Massage uses touch in a sensitive and respectful way, taking account of physical symptoms, wellbeing, and your lifestyle. There are lots of different types of massage therapy, such as Shiatsu, Indian head massage and aromatherapy massage.

Find out more from:

Western herbal medicine

These can be used to treat health problems in a similar manner to prescription medications, but the herbal practitioner will usually take a holistic, rather than an illness-focused, approach.

Find out more from:

 

Yoga 

Yoga involves spiritual and physical practices designed to increase self-awareness, such as posture work, breathing exercises, meditation, sounds and visualisation.

There are many different types of yoga, such as Hatha (moving through postures to create balance), Bikram (done in a hot room) and Iyengar (using blocks and straps to support yoga moves).

Many studies suggest that yoga can be helpful in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

It's a good idea to do at least a few classes with a professional instructor (in group or individually) before trying it by yourself, because doing the poses incorrectly can cause injuries.

But once you feel safe and confident, there are many books, DVDs and free online resources available to guide you on more cheaply.

Find out more from:

 

Yoga has helped me to practice some of the controlled breathing that my nurses and doctors had encouraged me to learn. Being introduced to some of the cultural beliefs of non-violence that influence yogic practice also helped me to start treating myself in a less judgemental and more compassionate way.


This information was published in April 2018 – to be revised in 2021. References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information see our page on permissions and licensing.


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