Complementary Health Approaches and Marijuana for Chronic Pain

Pain has both physical and mental components. Because of this, most types of chronic pain can be managed through techniques that are medication-free and have very few, if any, negative side effects.

  • Mindful meditation. Meditation focuses on the present and emphasizes acceptance rather than focusing on the past or future. When meditating, a person will usually focus on a specific object, word, or breathing pattern. Mindful meditation does not eliminate pain, however, it has shown to improve quality of life for people with chronic pain.1
  • See Meditation to Relieve Chronic Pain

  • Biofeedback. Biofeedback typically uses computers and machines to monitor heart rate, muscle tension, and other bodily functions while a trained practitioner, such as a pain management psychologist, instructs the person to become aware of these processes and develop techniques to control them. The goal is to take control of certain physiological processes in the body. Biofeedback is most often done in conjunction with CBT and relaxation exercises.
  • See Biofeedback for Pain Control

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to recognize negative thoughts and redirect them towards coping thoughts, which can ultimately make pain a livable part of daily life. Cognitive behavioral therapy is typically provided by a psychologist or mind-body therapist.
  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture in an ancient eastern medicine treatment that uses hair-thin needles inserted into the skin at strategic points on the body. It is thought to work by affecting hormone levels, pain signals, and the immune system. It is typically provided by a trained acupuncture specialist.
  • See Treating Chronic Pain with Acupuncture

  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This process involves tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups followed by a release of muscle tension. When practiced regularly it can teach the person to be more aware of where pain is coming from as well as help relieve muscle tension.
  • Deep breathing exercises. Chronic pain can often lead to strained breathing. This includes taking shallow breaths, which can cause chest pain and dizziness. By taking deep breaths over a period of time, the body will take in more oxygen, improve lung function, and enhance overall energy levels.
  • Guided Imagery. During pain flare-ups, concentrating on a pleasant scene or soothing image can distract attention from the discomfort.

See Treating Chronic Pain with Mind-Body Medicine

Complementary health is a growing field. Physical and occupational therapists are also qualified to teach and perform many complementary techniques.

In some cases, a doctor or pain management specialist can act as a referral to a therapist who teaches complementary techniques. Complementary health approaches can also sometimes be learned through smart phone apps and online. Unlike opioids and interventional pain treatments (e.g. injections, surgery), complementary therapies are essentially risk-free.

See Choosing and Meeting with a Pain Management Specialist

Medical Marijuana

Marijuana, or cannabis, has been considered a medical treatment for centuries and relief for chronic pain is the most commonly cited condition for its use.2

See Medical Marijuana for Chronic Pain

Cannabis can be administered in different ways:

  • Smoking
  • Consumption, including edible foods (with cannabis in the recipe), capsules, and sprays
  • Topical creams are available that provide the pain relieving effects of cannabis without the psychoactive high.

See Medical Marijuana: Administration and Dosing


Although marijuana has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of chronic pain, its legalization on a state-by-state basis has increased access and the number of doctors who are familiar and willing to consider it as a treatment option.

See Medical Marijuana: The Differences Between Strains

More long-term studies are needed to provide information about doses, routes of administration, and side effects. A doctor should always be consulted before consuming marijuana for the treatment of chronic pain.


  • 1.La cour P, Petersen M. Effects of mindfulness meditation on chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. Pain Med. 2015;16(4):641-52.
  • 2.National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Health and Medicine Division, Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda