Michael Phelps made waves at the 2016 Olympics not only for becoming the most decorated Olympian in history (with 28 medals total), but also for the dark circular marks adorning his back and shoulders. Phelps had been experimenting with cupping, an ancient healing technique that’s popular among professional athletes, celebrities, and everyday seekers of tension and pain relief.
Cupping isn’t the only alternative therapy making its way onto the world stage. In fact, approximately one-third of Americans use alternative medicine techniques to facilitate healing these days. (Among the most popular are fish oil, melatonin, chiropractic care, and yoga.) Far from being “new agey nonsense,” many of these therapies may have a real role to play in human health.
So before you dismiss alternative healing techniques, it’s worth learning more about how they work—and how they might help. Here are 10 alternative therapies that are gaining popularity across the U.S.
- Active Release Techniques (ART)
ART involves manipulating soft tissues to relieve tension and other issues in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, and nerves. Practitioners use their hands to apply pressure to trigger points while patients move the body part in question through a series of movements. (Practitioners work with patients to determine the proper movement protocol for a given issue.) After each session, patients are instructed to perform post-treatment exercises to maintain the therapeutic benefits.
The Evidence: Research shows that ART may help improve mobility, range of motion, and flexibility and help treat conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome or frequent headaches. Research on athletes has found that ART may improve sports performance, increase pain thresholds, treat conditions like tennis elbow, and help injured athletes get back in the game quicker than they would without treatment.
This traditional Chinese medicine technique is best known for the procedure that involves penetrating skin with thin needles. In reality, acupuncture encompasses a variety of techniques, but they all aim to stimulate specific points on the body in order to tap into “energy flows” and promote mental and physiological healing.
The Evidence: Though researchers aren’t clear why, acupuncture is thought to be effective for treating chronic conditions such as migraines, headaches, knee pain, low-back pain, neck pain, and depression—which might explain why millions of Americans pursue the treatment each year.
- Apitherapy/Bee Venom Therapy
Gwyneth Paltrow made headlines for sharing that she allowed bees to sting her as a cosmetic treatment. But the alternative-healing enthusiast may be onto something. Bee venom therapy (i.e. injecting bee venom into a person’s skin, often with the use of live honeybees) is one component of Apitherapy, which involves the use of honeybee products such as pollen, royal jelly, beeswax, and bee venom for medicinal purposes. The therapy has been around since ancient times, although it’s only just now gaining name recognition in the West.
The Evidence: Apitherapy may be effective for treating plaque psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis and for reducing inflammation in general, possibly because it helps stimulate blood and oxygen flow in the body. There’s also some evidence that it helps treat multiple sclerosis, gout, burns, infections, bursitis, shingles, and tendonitis, and it’s currently being studied as a cancer treatment. That said, bee venom therapy in particular is not without its risks, which include allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock, so be sure to talk with your doctor before giving it a try.
- Bacteriotherapy (Fecal Transplantation)
Bacteriotherapy involves transferring healthy stool from a donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient (typically via colonoscopy). Yes, it sounds gross, but the idea is that increasing the amount of healthy bacteria in a person’s gut can help treat a variety of diseases. While the practice needs some serious PR before being embraced by the masses, medical professionals expect to rely more heavily on bacteriotherapy as antibiotic resistance impedes conventional treatment options.
The Evidence: The practice is a proven treatment for people suffering from recurrent C. difficile colitis (inflammation of the colon) and for children with otitis media or acute rotavirus diarrhea. There’s also evidence to suggest it may help treat and prevent respiratory and gastrointestinal infections and ulcerative colitis.
The idea behind biofeedback is to empower people to feel more in control of their physical and emotional states—including conditions that may normally seem out of our control, such as heart rate and skin temperature. Therapists train patients in a number of mental exercises and relaxation techniques with the goal of improving conditions such as chronic pain, headaches, or high blood pressure. Once trained, patients can practice these techniques virtually anywhere.
The Evidence: Scientists aren’t quite sure why biofeedback works, but it does appear to. Existing research indicates that biofeedback is effective for controlling breath rate, heart rate, and anxiety.
- Cryogenic Chamber Therapy
Anyone who’s ever practiced R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) for a strained ankle knows how ice can take the edge off swelling and pain. Cryogenic chamber therapy takes that premise to a new (freezing cold) level. The practice involves stripping off most of your clothing and standing inside a chamber tuned to subzero temperatures (down to -200°F!) for approximately two to four minutes. Proponents of the therapy claim it can do everything from reduce pain to improve sleep and promote weight loss.
The Evidence: Research is mixed. Some evidence supports its use for the reduction of pain and inflammation. However one study found that cold-water immersion is more effective for reducing muscle soreness and improving athletic performance, and another review found whole-body cryotherapy might not be effective for treating muscle soreness after exercise. The practice also comes with risks in the form of frostbite and/or nerve injuries. All told, more research is needed.
This ancient therapy has been used for at least 2,000 years in Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Recently it’s become popular in the West as a potential treatment for a range of health issues, from respiratory troubles to muscular pain. In dry cupping (the most popular version), practitioners warm glass cups and then apply them to troubled areas on the patient’s body. The idea is that the suction helps promote circulation and blood flow to the area, thus facilitating healing.
The Evidence: Studies suggest dry cupping can stimulate the immune system and may reduce musculoskeletal pain. Another study found the therapy may help treat the herpes zoster virus in addition to other illnesses. Overall, cupping is generally considered safe.
- The Graston Technique
The Graston Technique (GT) operates via “instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization.” By rubbing problem areas with stainless-steel tools, GT practitioners aim to break down scar tissue to improve patients’ range of motion. The idea is that deliberately causing inflammation in areas with scar tissue promotes deep healing as the body works to reduce said inflammation.
The Evidence: Full disclosure: Scientists affiliated with GT have conducted much of the research on it. However that research does appear promising. Studies show the therapy may help athletes suffering from ROM or decreased strength, improve hip range of motion, help treat plantar fasciosis, prevent loss of shoulder motion, improve knee mobility, and promote circulation and overall healing at the cellular level.
- Kinesio Taping (KT)
Like cupping, kinesio taping got a PR boost at the 2016 Rio Olympics, although it was first developed by a chiropractor in the 1970s. The colorful tape is meant to hold injured joints in place in order to minimize additional damage and prevent injuries caused by overextension of the joints.
The Evidence: KT may reduce pain, improve range of motion, and increase strength after injury—but only for the short-term. Evidence regarding KT’s long-term benefits is less promising. One study disproved tapers’ claims that KT can increase blood flow to the taped area. Another study found that KT might not actually have musculoskeletal benefits. Interestingly, several studies suggest it has a profound placebo effect that can lead to improvements in perceived pain and range of motion.
With Reiki, it’s all about energy. The therapy is based on the idea that everyone’s body is home to an unseen “life force energy.” Illness and stress signify low life force energy, while vitality and good health represent strong life force energy. Reiki practitioners seek to help people with low life force energy by “transferring” life energy to the patient. This typically occurs by gently placing the hands on or near the body, but it is also thought to work from a distance.
The Evidence: Practitioners maintain that the practice can facilitate healing, reduce pain, enable relaxation, and improve patients’ overall well-being. Research into the practice is mixed. One review found no evidence to support Reiki’s effectiveness, but several studies suggest that therapeutic touch can indeed promote pain relief and healing and reduce anxiety and depression.
While there’s a lot of promising research around these alternative therapies, it’s worth noting that they could all benefit from additional study. Also, since alternative therapies can impact people in many different ways, it’s very important to first consult a medical professional who can help you determine the approach to healing that works best for you, before beginning any new therapies, treatments, or other health care regimen.