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Alternative Therapies

People who live with chronic diseases like ankylosing spondylitis (AS) and may use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

What’s the difference between complementary and alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine is a term that means any medicinal products or practices that are not part of mainstream medicine given by medical doctors and allied health professionals, such as nurses or physical therapists. Alternative medicine is also defined by its use as an alternative to traditional medical care. Complementary medicine is used in combination with traditional medicine. Another term is integrative health, which brings together conventional and complementary practices in a coordinated way. Whichever approach you use, it’s best to talk to your doctor about all therapies and practices you are using to manage your symptoms.1

What are some of the complementary approaches used in ankylosing spondylitis?

There are a variety of complementary therapies and approaches that may be used by people with AS. Some of the complementary medicine approaches for AS include:

Yoga

Yoga is an exercise that combines body postures, breathing techniques, and meditation in an effort to achieve harmony in the body, mind, and spirit. People with AS are advised to include regular physical activity as part of their daily routine to manage symptoms of AS, and yoga can be a part of an exercise program. While there have been few studies on yoga’s effects on people with AS, studies of yoga for back pain have demonstrated that people engaging in yoga regularly for 6 months had significantly less disability, pain, and depression.2

Bodywork

Bodywork includes a variety of hands-on approaches that touch or manipulate the muscles, joints, or soft tissues of the body. Bodywork approaches include massage, chiropractic, and Rolfing (or structural integration). People with AS may benefit from incorporating bodywork into their health practices to help relieve pain and stiffness. Some forms of bodywork like massage can also promote relaxation and reduce stress.3,4

Acupuncture

Acupuncture comes from traditional Chinese medicine and involves inserting thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body to balance chi, or life force energy. While acupuncture has not been thoroughly studied in people with AS, results from research studies suggest provide benefit in pain relief, particularly in people experiencing chronic low back pain, neck pain, and knee pain due to osteoarthritis.5

Diet

People with AS may turn to dietary modifications to help manage their symptoms. While no specific diet has been proven to influence the progression or severity of AS, certain foods can increase inflammation and others can reduce inflammation in the body. Some people have certain food sensitivities which may also increase their symptoms.6

Herbs and other supplements

Vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements may be used by people with AS to help manage symptoms or boost their overall health. While most herbs and other supplements are generally safe when taken as directed, some can interfere with medications, causing medications to not be as effective or causing worsening side effects. It’s important to talk to your doctor about all herbs, vitamins, and other supplements you are taking. Supplements which may be used by people with AS include omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil), calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, white willow bark, turmeric, and Boswellia.6,7

Medical marijuana

While illegal nationally, several states have passed laws making medical marijuana legal, and a few states have also made recreational use of marijuana legal. People with arthritis conditions like AS may use medical marijuana to help with their pain.8

TENS unit

A TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit is a battery-powered machine that connects to electrodes which are placed on the skin that can be used as a complementary approach to manage pain.3

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: February 2019
  1. Complementary, alternative or integrative health: what’s in a name? National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Available at https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health. Accessed 2/19/19.
  2. Yoga as a complementary health approach. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Available at https://nccih.nih.gov/news/multimedia/infographics/yoga/text. Accessed 2/15/19.
  3. Complementary therapies. National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society. Available at https://nass.co.uk/managing-my-as/exercise/complementary-therapies/. Accessed 2/15/19.
  4. Benefits of massage. Arthritis Foundation. Available at https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/treatments/natural/other-therapies/massage/massage-benefits.php. Accessed 2/14/19.
  5. Acupuncture: In Depth. National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/introduction. Published 1/16. Accessed 2/18/19.
  6. Medication and diet. Spondylitis Association of America. Available at https://www.spondylitis.org/About-Spondylitis/Treatment-Information/Diet-Nutrition/Medication-Diet. Accessed 2/19/19.
  7. Maroon JC, Bost JW, Maroon A. Natural anti-inflammatory agents for pain relief. Surg Neurol Int. 2010;1:80. Published 2010 Dec 13. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.73804
  8. Fitzcharles MA, Shir Y, Ste-Marie PA. Eight things rheumatologists should know about medical marijuana. Rheumatology Network. Available at https://www.rheumatologynetwork.com/pain/eight-things-rheumatologists-should-know-about-medical-marijuana. Accessed 2/19/19.