What do the treatments called “healing therapies” have in common? They’re all forms of complementary and alternative (CAM) medicine—therapeutic practices that many use alongside or instead of mainstream medical treatments. These approaches are popular: Almost 40 percent of people use some form of CAM, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Some healing therapies are ancient—massage and Chinese herbs, for example. Others, like Healing Touch, have been around for just a few decades. Many are starting to be offered as part of integrative medicine programs in hospitals and clinics around the country as doctors recognize that more patients are interested in different approaches to feeling better that are usually less invasive and have fewer potential side effects.
If you’re curious about integrative therapies, you might be wondering what they are, exactly, who they’re good for and how they work (or if they even work at all). Read on to learn about the benefits of some of the most popular kinds of healing treatments:
These treatments rely on skin-to-skin contact and pressure to provide their benefits:
- Massage. Chances are good you’ve had a massage yourself, whether from a professional or a loved one. During a massage, practitioners use their fingers and hands (and sometimes their forearms, elbows and feet) to rub and press muscles and other soft tissue. It’s one of the best-accepted healing therapies, and for good reason: Aside from its relaxation benefits, a good rubdown has been shown to alleviate aches and pain, relieve muscle tightness and soreness, soothe headaches, improve blood circulation, release toxins and it may help to ease depression and anxiety, too. Massage appears to be especially effective for treating low-back pain. There is such a thing as a bad massage, however—one that leaves you in more pain than when you started. That’s why it’s important to find a skilled therapist who knows how to massage your body so you leave the appointment saying, ahhh, not ouch. Read our article, The Better-Health Benefits of Massage Therapy, to learn about different forms of massage, like shiatsu and Swedish, and to choose the type of treatment that’s best for your needs.
- Reflexology. If you’re familiar with the concepts of acupuncture and acupressure (more on that below), you already know a bit about reflexology, too. All of these techniques target pressure points that are said to correspond with internal organs and the body’s systems. Reflexology, though, uses pressure points that are different than those used in acupuncture and acupressure. Practitioners apply pressure to points on the feet, as well as on the hands and the ears, to unblock energy said to be “reflexively” connected to different organs. Research suggests that the technique may help treat a variety of conditions, including pain, bowel issues and anxiety. And if you’re nervous about taking your clothes off and having someone touch different areas of your body during a massage, reflexology can provide a big dose of relaxation without those factors—you only need to expose your feet!
These traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practices originated thousands of years ago and are becoming increasingly popular in the West:
- Acupuncture and Acupressure. Practitioners of these two techniques apply either hair-thin needles (acupuncture) or physical pressure (acupressure) to “acupoints” throughout the body to painlessly unblock and restore the flow of energy, or “qi,” to restore or maintain health. A recent review of 29 studies on almost 18,000 people found that acupuncture to be an effective treatment for chronic pain; it’s also being investigated for digestive issues, infertility, PMS and many other conditions. Exactly how it works is debated; one theory suggests that stimulating acupoints helps conduct electromagnetic signals in the body and a group of Chinese researchers recently reported locating these points on CT scans. Acupuncture’s popularity is growing fast: A recent government study found that more than three million adults in the U.S. and 150,000 children had used it in the past year. You can learn more about these techniques—including how to make sure you’re getting a safe treatment—by reading our articles Finding Health and Balance with Acupuncture and Understanding Acupressure.
- Chinese Herbs. People from different cultures have been using plants’ seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark and flowers as medicine for many thousands of years. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the world’s population still uses herbal medicine in the form of teas, capsules, liquid extracts, granules and powders. (Even about one-quarter of pharmaceutical drugs are based on botanicals.) In the U.S., TCM providers combine herbs like bitter orange, gingko and ginseng into custom-made “formulas” based on an individual’s health needs (single herbs are rarely prescribed because they work better in combination and can offset each other’s potential side effects). If you’re interested in using Chinese herbs to prevent or treat a health issue, it’s best to consult with a TCM practitioner. Not only will he or she know the right formula for what ails you, but they also have expertise in safely sourcing herbs to reduce risks (such as contamination by heavy metals). It’s crucial to discuss any herbs you’re on with your primary care provider, too (studies show that most people don’t).
This practice is premised on the idea that energy flows through and around us and can be adjusted, unblocked and rebalanced to restore health. Here are two popular forms of energy work:
- Reiki. If you’re like many people, you’ve heard the name Reiki but you have no idea what it means. Reiki is a relaxation and stress-reduction technique that’s also believed to promote healing. The practice originated in Japan in the 1800s. During a Reiki treatment, you will be fully clothed and a practitioner will place his or her hands on or above various spots on your body for several minutes to pass their energy to you. In Reiki, the laying-on of hands is believed to restore the four components of a patient’s “life force:” emotional, mental, physical and spiritual energy. The scientific evidence for Reiki is conflicting, but it may improve sleep, alleviate stress, treat depression and ease pain. Reiki has very few side effects, but to get the best experience you’ll want to seek out a practitioner who belongs to an organization that ensures its members have extensive training, such as the International Association of Reiki Professionals.
- Healing Touch. An American nurse founded this calming practice, which combines energy work with touch, in 1989; today, it’s used in hospitals, clinics, holistic health centers and spas around the country. As with Reiki, research on Healing Touch is limited, but it’s believed to create an overall sense of well-being, reduce anxiety, stress and depression and promote relaxation, deepen spiritual awareness, help the body heal, ease chronic pain and reduce trauma from surgery, cancer treatment and other procedures. Placing their hands on or above you, practitioners move slowly through your body’s energy field to balance your chakras (energy centers) and clear unbalanced or "stuck" energy. Many healing touch sessions also include relaxation elements, like deep breathing and guided imagery. You can find certified Healing Touch practitioners through the Healing Touch Program and Healing Touch International.