Complementary & Alternative Medicine

There is no cure for AxSpA spectrum conditions, but there are treatments for them. Because there is no cure, the goals of treatment include maximizing quality of life, preventing or slowing progressive structural damage, and controlling symptoms and inflammation and preserving mobility.1 All of these aspects also help to promote quality of life, which is important when living with a chronic, progressive condition.

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

Complementary and alternative medicine are actually two 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’s a good idea to discuss it with your health care provider. Even seemingly harmless or natural complementary treatments may have serious adverse effects that you might not know about.

There are various CAM treatments that people living with AxSpA spectrum conditions may use, and knowing more about them can give you more 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 main part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is often used to treat pain and relieve stress.3 TCM explains that acupuncture balances the flow of energy, or life force known as chi/qi in the body.3 The needle insertions help to rebalance any abnormalities in this flow. Some mainstream doctors feel the needles help stimulate nerves or connective tissue and increase the body’s natural pain relievers.3

Acupuncture has been found to relieve lower back pain and pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatic diseases, with minimal side effects.4 More research needs to be done in its effectiveness for AxSpA spectrum conditions, but it may be worth trying.

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 the diagnosis, and continue to regularly exercise after that.5 You can easily do stretches at home, but you might want to work with a physical therapist initially to learn proper technique before doing so.

You don’t need a home gym to do these stretches; you can do them in the morning in your bed, and 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’s safe to do so. 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 living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).6 The other health benefits of yoga have been widely established, and can include increased flexibility, weight loss, improved muscle tone and strength, and improved cardiovascular health.7

How can therapeutic massage help?

Stiffness is a common symptom of AxSpA spectrum conditions. Therapeutic massage uses different techniques to help encourage the body’s natural restorative functioning.8 Different degrees of physical touch are used to help relax muscles, promote calmness and relaxation, and stimulate blood and lymph circulation.8 It can help with soft tissue healing, reduce pain and stress, release muscle tension, and alleviate emotional stress or tension.8 Massage can help reduce overall pain and anxiety, and this may be worth a try 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.9 Electrodes are placed on the body where you’re experiencing pain and when electricity travels through the electrodes to the nerve fibers, the currents block the pain receptors.9 This means the message of pain is not sent from the nerves to the brain.9 A TENS machine is small and can be used at home; a health care provider typically sets the machine to the proper settings and shows you how to use it.

TENS therapy has been used to help treat joint, muscle, or bone problems, tendinitis, neck pain, and cancer pain.9

A study examining TENS treatment for ankylosing spondylitis found it to be ineffective in relieving pain, but more research needs to be done to explore its use with AxSpA spectrum conditions.10 If you’re interested in exploring TENS treatment for your symptoms, talk with your doctor.

Supplements as treatment

Supplements may be touted as all-natural ways you can treat a condition, but they can have serious adverse effects and are not held to rigorous testing and safety standards like traditional medications are. For AxSpA conditions, you may hear about omega-3 fatty acid supplements or calcium and vitamin D supplements, and 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 populations.

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

Talk with your doctor before taking any supplement, even “all-natural” ones. These still have the potential to interact with medications and may not be appropriate for everyone, depending on your medical history and current health issues.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: November 2020