Last updated: Oct 07, 2014
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from the editors of Health and Money


Your best friend sees an acupuncturist for her headaches. Your boss swears her chiropractor cured her back pain. They represent a growing trend: More than a third of Americans use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, per the National Institutes of Health. "Combined with traditional medicine, alternative therapies are important tools in treating the whole patient, not just a specific condition," notes Marc Brodsky, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine and Wellness at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Conn. Solid research proves the following ones get results.

Acupuncture

What it is
This ancient Chinese practice involves inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body.

What it's good for
Remedying headaches and chronic low-back, neck or knee pain. In one study of back-pain sufferers, folks who underwent acupuncture reported more relief than those who relied on meds or physical therapy. Some research suggests it may also help with infertility, depression and hot flashes.

Why it works
"Acupuncture increases endorphins, or feel-good hormones," says Houman Danesh, MD, director of integrative pain management at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Are there risks?
Relatively few complications have been reported, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

FYI
Pick an acupuncturist who is state-licensed and certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Cost
$50 to $150 per session. About one-third of large companies now cover it in their insurance plans. You can also pay with tax-free dollars through your health savings account (HSA) or flexible spending account (FSA).

Biofeedback

What it is
During a biofeedback session, you're hooked up to electrical sensors that chart and display your heart and breathing rates as well as your blood pressure, temp and muscle activity. With relaxation exercises such as guided imagery, the therapist teaches you to, say, lower your heart rate.

What it's good for
Urinary incontinence, hypertension and chronic pain conditions such as headache and TMJ.

Why it works
"Since it's a relaxation technique," says Melissa Young, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine, "it makes sense that it helps with issues that are exacerbated by stress, like headache."

Are there risks?
No.

FYI
Look for a therapist certified by the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance (bcia.org).

Cost
$50 to $200 per visit. Insurance usually doesn't cover it, though some plans do for a diagnosis like headache or fibromyalgia.



Chiropractic

What it is
Chiropractors mainly perform adjustments to the spine and elsewhere to correct alignment issues and improve body functioning.

What it's good for
Research indicates that chiropractic is most helpful for low-back pain. It can also alleviate migraine and neck pain, joint conditions and whiplash-related disorders, says a 2010 review.

Why it works
"A lot of chronic pain is musculo-skeletal, and chiropractic increases movement in joints and relaxes muscles, which can relieve imbalances and spasms," Dr. Young explains.

Are there risks?
There have been rare reports of serious complications like stroke, but it's unclear if the cause was chiropractic treatment. To be safe, ask your chiropractor to avoid your neck: There's a concern that adjustments there may tear arteries leading to the brain.

FYI
A state license is essential; it shows that the practitioner had four years of postgraduate training at an accredited chiropractic college and passed a state licensing exam.

Cost
$40 to $125 per session. It's typically covered by insurance and is payable with FSA or HSA money.

Massage therapy

What it is
A type of bodywork in which a therapist strokes, kneads and manipulates muscles and other soft tissue.

What it's good for
Yes, it's calming, but studies show that it also soothes chronic low-back, neck and knee osteoarthritis pain and even relieves depression symptoms.

Why it works
Besides relaxing muscles and lowering heart rate, it appears to reduce levels of the hormone cortisol (associated with pain and inflammation), a 2014 research review found.

Are there risks?
It's generally safe, but avoid vigorous massage if you have a bleeding disorder or low blood platelet counts or are taking a blood thinner.

FYI
Not all states regulate massage therapists. If yours doesn't, check for certification from the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.

Cost
$60 to $250 per hour. It's not usually paid for by insurance. If a doctor prescribes it to treat a specific condition, a few plans will cover limited sessions (and you can use HSA or FSA cash).

Naturopathy

What it is
A type of medicine that believes the body can heal itself through diet, lifestyle, herbs, acupuncture and chiropractic.

What it's good for
Chronic pain. It can be even more effective than physical therapy for low-back pain, one study found.

Why it works
"Rather than providing a Band-Aid solution for symptoms, practitioners try to get to the root cause of the disease," explains Melinda Ring, MD, medical director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.

Are there risks?
Relying exclusively on naturopathy and shunning mainstream care may be harmful. Plus, certain herbs can cause side effects or interact with medicines or supplements.

FYI
Your best bet is a naturopathic physician (an ND or NMD), Dr. Ring says. That means he has completed a four-year graduate-level program at an accredited naturopathic medical school.

Cost
$250 to $400 for an initial 90-minute visit; $100 to $200 for a 30- to 60-minute follow-up. Insurance doesn't usually cover naturopathy, but some plans are starting to—check with yours.