Complementary Health Approaches

Mind and Body Practices

Most complementary health approaches fall into one of two categories: natural products or mind and body practices. This section addresses mind and body practices.

(Watch the videos on this page to learn more about mind body practices. To enlarge a video, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner of the video screen. To reduce a video, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)

Mind and body practices are a large and varied group of techniques performed or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher.

Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body—most often by inserting thin needles through the skin. Researchers have investigated acupuncture for various kinds of pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and other symptoms.

Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners work on muscle and other soft tissues. Massage therapy has been studied for a variety of symptoms, including several types of pain, anxiety, and depression.

There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common.

  • a quiet location with as few distractions as possible
  • a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions)
  • a focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath)
  • an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them)

Meditation has been studied for several types of health problems, including high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and anxiety.

Movement therapies include a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches. Examples include Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.

Reiki is a complementary approach in which practitioners place their hands lightly on or just above a person, with the goal of facilitating the person’s own healing response. There is a lack of high-quality research on Reiki.

Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, are designed to produce the body’s natural relaxation response. They have been studied for anxiety associated with illnesses or medical procedures, headaches, insomnia, and other conditions.

Spinal manipulation is performed primarily by chiropractors but may also be done by physical therapists or other health professionals. Practitioners use their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine. Spinal manipulation has been studied for low-back pain, neck pain, migraine, and other conditions.

Tai chi and qi gong are closely related practices from traditional Chinese medicine that combine specific movements, coordinated breathing, and mental focus. Researchers are studying whether tai chi or qi gong can help people manage symptoms associated with some chronic conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and chronic neck pain.

Yoga has historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. There are different styles of yoga, and they share common elements, such as physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation. Yoga has been studied for low-back pain, depression, arthritis, and other conditions.

Commonly Used Practices

Several mind and body practices were among the complementary health approaches most commonly used by adults in the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. They included deep breathing exercises, meditative movement practices (yoga, tai chi, qi gong), chiropractic manipulation, meditation, and massage therapy.

Working With a Practitioner

Mind and body practices usually involve working with a practitioner or teacher. It is important to select a complementary health practitioner as carefully as you would select a conventional health care provider. For more information on selecting a practitioner, see the section entitled "Be an Informed Consumer."

Tell all your health care providers about any complementary health practitioners you’re seeing and any complementary approaches you’re using to treat health problems.

For More Information

Check out the website of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at www.nccih.nih.gov for more information on mind and body practices.

For information on a specific mind and body practice—or the complementary approaches that have been studied for a particular disease or condition— see NCCIH’s A to Z list of health topics.