Complementary therapies for pain

Complementary therapies can be used to help with pain. These methods draw your attention away from the pain and release muscle tension caused by pain. They can help you relax. Some may work by releasing natural opioids within the body that can enhance the effects of pain medicine and medical therapies.

Talk to the healthcare team if you are thinking about using complementary therapies to manage pain. Ask if they will interfere with any cancer treatments or medicines.


Acupuncture is an energy therapy that is part of traditional Chinese medicine. It uses very thin needles inserted through the skin at certain points to help restore the flow of energy in the body.


Biofeedback uses monitoring devices to help you learn how to consciously control certain body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating or muscle tension.

Cannabis and cannabinoids for medical purposes

The Canadian government allows seriously ill people access to cannabis for medical reasons. This is commonly called medical marijuana.

Energy therapies

Energy therapies are based on the belief that there are energy fields that flow through and around your body.

Guided imagery and visualization

Guided imagery is the use of images that help you think of and reach a specific goal. Visualizing happy, relaxed or pleasant pictures may help you overcome some pain.

Heat or cold

Heat, such as warm baths, warm water bottles and heating pads, may be used to treat aches or persistent muscle pain. Heat can help reduce stiffness in joints, relax muscles, ease muscle spasms and increase blood supply to the area. Heat should not be used on areas of skin that have received radiation therapy.

Cold, such as running cold water over or applying ice to an area, can be used to treat muscle spasms or headaches.


Hypnosis is a state of relaxed and focused attention in which you concentrate on a certain feeling, idea or suggestion. Hypnosis can be used to block the awareness of pain or to substitute another feeling for pain.


Massage is a form of touch therapy. Depending on where your pain is, you may massage yourself or get help from a family member, friend or massage therapist. Massage can make you feel more comfortable and give you a sense of well-being. It can also be a soothing connection between you and a loved one. It may involve brief contact, such as holding hands or rubbing a shoulder, or it may involve longer contact.


Meditation is the practice of concentrating or focusing your attention to increase mental awareness and calm your mind and body.

Music therapy

Music can help ease pain, lift your mood and work against depression. It can make you feel like moving and doing physical activities or it can help you relax and go to sleep. Music can also provide distraction from pain.


Reiki is an energy therapy that is part of a spiritual practice. It is also commonly called hands-on healing. It involves using the hands to transfer energy to promote healing and relieve pain. During a reiki session, the practitioner places hands on different parts of your body.

Tai chi

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that combines slow, focused body movements, mediation and deep breathing.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a non-invasive treatment that may reduce pain. TENS is believed to interrupt the pain signals sent to the brain. It may also work by promoting the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. TENS may help treat headaches, muscle aches or pains or nerve pain.

During TENS, wires and electrodes attached to a small battery-powered device are placed on the skin, usually on either side of the area where you feel pain. The electrodes carry electrical impulses to the nerves.


Yoga involves stretches and poses with special focus given to breathing. It can be used to calm the nervous system and balance the body, mind and spirit.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Cancer Pain. 2015.
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology. Managing Cancer-Related Pain: A Guide for Patients, Families and Caregivers. 2017.
  • BC Cancer Agency. Pain. Vancouver: BC Cancer Agency (BCCA); 2006.
  • Cancer Research UK. Cancer and pain control. Cancer Research UK; 2014:
  • De Jong, F. A., Engels, R. K., Mathijssen, R. H. J., et al . Medicinal cannabis in oncology practice: Still a bridge too far. Journal of Clinical Oncology. Alexandria: American Society of Clinical Oncology; 2005.
  • Fisch, M. J., and Cleeland, C. S . Managing cancer pain. Skeel, R. T., (Ed.). Handbook of Cancer Chemotherapy. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2003: 31: pp. 650-673.
  • Health Canada. Frequently Asked Questions: Medical Use of Marijuana. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada; 2005.
  • Lavoie Smith, E . Cancer pain. Varricchio, C., Pierce, M., Hinds, P. S., & Ades, T. B. A Cancer Source Book for Nurses. 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2004: 23: pp. 349-360.
  • National Cancer Institute . Cancer Pain (PDQ®) Health Professional Version . 2017 :
  • Paice, J. A . Pain. Yarbro, C. H., Frogge, M. H. & Goodman, M. Cancer Symptom Management. 3rd ed. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2004: 6: pp. 77-96.
  • Robbins, W. R., Rosenbaum, E. H., Dollinger, M. and Rosenbaum, I. R . Controlling pain. Dollinger, M., Rosenbaum, E., Tempero, M., & Mulvihill, S. Everyone's Guide to Cancer Therapy: How Cancer Is Diagnosed, Treated and Managed Day to Day. 4th ed. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing; 2002: 25: pp. 202-206.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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