Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2022 | Last updated: June 2022

There is no cure for AxSpA spectrum conditions, but there are treatments for them. Since there is no cure, the goals of treatment include:1

  • Maximizing quality of life
  • Preventing or slowing progressive structural damage
  • Controlling symptoms and inflammation
  • Preserving mobility

All of these aspects also help promote quality of life, which is important when living with a chronic, progressive condition like AxSpa.

What is complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) for axial spondyloarthritis?

Complementary and alternative medicine is actually 2 different things:2

  • When a non-mainstream practice is used with conventional medicine, this is complementary medicine
  • When a non-mainstream practice is used instead of conventional medicine, this is alternative medicine

Before using any non-mainstream treatment options, it is a good idea to discuss it with your doctor. Even seemingly harmless or natural complementary treatments may have serious side effects that you may not know about.

There are various CAM treatments that people living with AxSpA spectrum conditions may use. Knowing more about them can give you ideas for potential treatment options.

Acupuncture and AxSpA spectrum conditions

Acupuncture is a treatment that involves inserting very thin needles through the skin at specific points on the body. It is a key part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is often used to treat pain and relieve stress. TCM explains that acupuncture balances the flow of energy or life force in the body known as chi/qi. The needle insertions help to rebalance any abnormalities in this flow. Some mainstream doctors feel the needles help stimulate nerves or connective tissue. In turn, this increases the body’s natural pain relievers.3

Acupuncture has been found to relieve lower back pain and pain linked to osteoarthritis and rheumatic diseases, with minimal side effects. More research is needed to better understand its effectiveness for AxSpA spectrum conditions, but it may be worth trying.4

Home stretching and yoga for AxSpA spectrum conditions

Stretching and exercise are a main part of treatment for AxSpA spectrum conditions. It is recommended to start exercising soon after you get a diagnosis and continue to regularly exercise after that. You can easily do stretches at home. However, you might want to first work with a physical therapist to learn proper methods.5

You do not need a home gym to do stretches – you can do them in the morning in your bed or even on the couch. Gentle stretching can help reduce stiffness and keep your joints moving.

Yoga can be another way to get exercise and stretching in. Before starting yoga, talk with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you. While there have been no studies specifically with yoga and AxSpA spectrum conditions, yoga has been studied in relation to other inflammatory conditions. One study found that yoga helped relieve systemic inflammatory markers and reduced feelings of depression in a group of people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).6

Other health benefits of yoga have been widely established. This includes:7

  • Increased flexibility
  • Weight loss
  • Improved muscle tone and strength
  • Improved heart health

How can therapeutic massage help?

Stiffness is a common symptom of AxSpA spectrum conditions. Therapeutic massage uses different methods to help encourage the body’s natural restorative functioning.8

Different degrees of physical touch are used to:8

  • Help relax muscles
  • Promote calmness and relaxation
  • Stimulate blood and lymph circulation
  • Help with soft tissue healing
  • Reduce pain and stress
  • Release muscle tension
  • Reduce emotional stress or tension

Massage can help reduce overall pain and anxiety. It may be worth trying if you find yourself carrying tension in your body or find your muscles stiff.

What is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)?

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy uses low-voltage electric currents to help relieve pain. Electrodes are placed on the body where you are experiencing pain. When electricity travels through the electrodes to the nerve fibers, the currents block the pain receptors. This means the message of pain is not sent from the nerves to the brain.9

TENS therapy may be used to help treat:9

  • Joint, muscle, or bone problems
  • Tendinitis,
  • Neck pain
  • Cancer pain

A study examining TENS treatment for ankylosing spondylitis found it to be ineffective in relieving pain. However, more research needs to be done to explore its use with AxSpA spectrum conditions.10

If you are interested in exploring TENS treatment for your symptoms, talk with your doctor. A TENS machine is small and can be used at home. A doctor usually sets the machine to the proper settings and shows you how to use it.9

Supplements as treatment

Supplements may be touted as all-natural ways you can treat a condition. However, they can have serious side effects and are not held to the testing and safety standards like traditional medicines.

For AxSpA conditions, you may hear about omega-3 fatty acid supplements or calcium and vitamin D supplements. While all of these nutrients are important for good health, taking high doses of them in supplement form can have negative side effects, especially for certain people.11

Some supplements promise pain relief, like CBD (cannabidiol) supplements. These supplements are taken from the hemp plant. CBD is 1 of the active ingredients in marijuana and an important part of medical marijuana. When taken alone, CBD does not cause a person to get high, nor is there any potential for abuse or dependence. CBD is said to help relieve chronic pain and lower inflammation. It can also help reduce anxiety and insomnia.11

Talk with your doctor before taking any supplement, even “all-natural” ones. They may still interact with medicine and may not be right for you depending on your medical history and current health issues.

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