What are complementary therapies?

Safety checklist for complementary therapies

Touch, pressure and movement therapies

Other complementary therapies

Medicine and diet related therapies

Mind and emotion therapies

Complementary therapies

These types of therapies are designed to complement and work alongside conventional medicine and treatments – not replace them. They concentrate on treating the whole person.

Even if your usual drug treatment is working well, you may be curious to know why many people living with arthritis are choosing to explore therapies like acupuncture, aromatherapy and reflexology, and want to know whether you could benefit too.

The wide choice of complementary therapies can be bewildering, but they all have a common goal: to treat the person, not the condition itself.

Like conventional medicine, though, complementary therapies cannot offer a cure for arthritis. Unlike conventional medicine, there is very little scientific evidence to support these therapies. However, many people claim they can help alleviate symptoms such as pain and stiffness, as well as counteract some of the unwanted side effects of drugs.

Back to top

Safety checklist for complementary therapies

If you do decide to try a complementary therapy, the following checklist will help you ensure your treatment is reliable and safe.

  1. Ask your GP if he or she can refer you on the public system.
  2. Ask your complementary therapist how much treatment will cost and how long it will take.
  3. Find out whether the therapist is a member of a professional body.
  4. Find out whether they have insurance in case something goes wrong.
  5. Ask about their training and how long they have been practising.
  6. Beware of anyone who suggests you stop taking prescribed drugs.
  7. Don’t stop taking prescribed drugs without discussing it with your GP.
  8. Tell your complementary therapist about any prescribed drugs you are taking.
  9. Tell your GP about any complementary therapies you are using.

Back to top

Therapies in detail

Touch, pressure and movement therapies


Acupressure has been described as acupuncture without the needles. Its roots are also in traditional Chinese medicine and it works on the same principle of stimulating points along the ‘channels’ where life energy (or chi) flows. Many acupuncturists will also use acupressure as part of their treatment – using their fingers, thumbs and even feet and knees to stimulate acupoints. It can also be suitable for selftreatment at home for minor ailments such as headaches.


Association of Complementary Health Therapists on 053 9383734 or by email on [email protected]

Visit their website: www.irishtherapists.ie


The roots of acupuncture lie in traditional Chinese medicine where it has been practised for thousands of years. It works on the theory that health is determined by the flow of internal energy (chi) through the body. By inserting fine needles at these special points, imbalances in the flow of energy can be corrected.

Acupuncture is generally believed to be useful as a form of pain relief, but it cannot slow down or stop the disease process in rheumatic conditions. The scientific view is that acupuncture points correspond to nerve pathways in the body and inserting needles at these points causes the release of the body’s natural opiate-like painkillers. This also relates to the ‘gate’ theory of pain: stimulation by the needles causes a message to be sent to the spinal column which closes the ‘pain gate’ and so blocks pain impulses to the brain. Generally, between three and six treatment sessions are required although long-standing complaints may need more.


The Acupuncture Council of Ireland on 1850 300600 or by email on [email protected] 

Visit their website www.tcmci.ie

Alexander technique

The Alexander technique concentrates on how we use our bodies in everyday life and teaches people new ways of using the body to improve balance, co-ordination and awareness. By learning to stand and move correctly, people can ease stresses on their body and alleviate conditions that are made worse by poor posture. The Alexander technique is generally taught one-to-one and you need regular practice to successfully change a lifetime of bad habits. Most people need between 15 and 30 lessons to become proficient.


The Irish Society of Alexander Technique Teachers by email on [email protected]

Visit their website www.isatt.ie


Aromatherapy uses essential oils from plants to promote health and well-being. Essential oils can be used in many ways, including as a vapour which is inhaled, in baths or in a burner. But one of the most common methods is as part of an aromatherapy massage. This combines the benefits of touch with the therapeutic properties of essential oils. The oils can help users both through their powerful aromas and by being directly absorbed through the skin. Each oil has its own particular properties – some are invigorating, some relaxing and some act as anti-inflammatories.

Pure essential oils can be used at home and are available at health food shops, chemists and by mail order. Rosemary, camomile, marjoram and juniper oils are all thought to be good for muscular or joint aches and pains.


Association of Complementary Health Therapists on 053 9383734 or by email on [email protected]

Visit their website: www.irishtherapists.ie 


Chiropractic is one of the complementary therapies which has gained most respect from the medical community. It aims to improve mobility and relieve pain by focusing on mechanical problems in the joints – especially the spine. Chiropractors use their hands to adjust the joints in the spine and other parts of the body where movement is restricted. While they cannot reverse the damage in joints affected by arthritis, chiropractors claim that this regular adjustment can keep joints healthier and more mobile, while also reducing pain and slowing down further damage.

On your first visit a chiropractor will almost certainly take X-rays of your spine. Treatment should not be given where there is inflammation (for instance during a flare-up of rheumatoid arthritis), infection, or if osteoporosis is suspected.


The Chiropractic Association of Ireland by phone on 021 4857775 or by email on [email protected]

Visit their website www.chiropractic.ie 


Hydrotherapy allows people with arthritis to exercise the joints and muscles while being supported by warm water. The warm temperature of the water aids muscle relaxation and eases pain in the joints, making it easier to relax. Because the water supports your weight, the range of movement in your joints should also increase. You can improve muscle strength by pushing your arms and legs against the water.

Most hydrotherapy pools range in depth and have steps to get into the pool but there is normally a hoist too. A physiotherapist oversees the session.


The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists by phone on 01 4022148, by email [email protected]  

visit their website www.iscp.ie 


We use massage instinctively to ‘rub something better’ or soothe and calm someone in distress. As a therapy it can loosen stiff muscles by using gentle, soothing and kneading movements, and improve the tone of slack muscles using firmer, faster movements. Massage can also increase the flow of blood and lymph through the body and ease tension. On a psychological level, a good massage leaves you feeling relaxed and cared for.

Swedish Massage generally takes place on a special table and for a full body massage it is usual to undress down to underwear and to wear towels.


Irish Massage Therapist Association, P.O. Box 10546, Dublin 8. By email on [email protected] 

visit their website www.massageireland.org 


Like chiropractic, osteopathy focuses on the importance of the spine and joints. It is based on the belief that misalignments of bones can interfere with the fl ow of body fluids (especially blood) and with the correct functioning of the nerves. A disturbance in the normal balance of these processes is thought to result in disease. Osteopaths use ‘adjustments’ of the joints (similar to those described for chiropractors) and more relaxing manipulation for softer areas to correct structural and mechanical faults and allow the body to heal itself. They may also give advice on lifestyle changes and suggest exercises to do at home.

Osteopathy is most commonly used for back and joint pain – arthritis, sciatica, frozen shoulders and sports injuries. It should not be used to treat people with osteoporosis, infl amed joints or during the fi rst three months of pregnancy.


Osteopathic Council of Ireland by email on [email protected] 

visit their website www.osteopathy.ie 


Pilates is a full-body and mind activity that leaves participants feeling refreshed and energised after each session. It can improve and manage strength, flexibility, and muscle tone, while the focus on deep breathing can also help manage stress and anxiety, common symptoms of arthritis. Pilates classes can also help with posture and alignment, reduce the risk of injuries and help with aches and pains.

There are a number of Pilates studios, classes and instructors around the country. Most gyms and local leisure centres will run classes. It is important to ensure that you have been medically cleared for physical activity before taking part in any Pilates class.


Reflexologists believe that stimulating the reflex points in the feet can help remove energy blocks, relieving stress and allowing the body to heal itself. The therapy is built on the principle that pressure applied to one part of the body can relieve pain in other parts. Practitioners apply a pressing movement using their finger or thumb. This is generally pleasant, but can be painful on a sensitive reflex point. The pressure is too firm to be ticklish.


Irish Reflexologist’s Institute Limited by phone on 041 9806904 or by email [email protected] 

visit their website on www.reflexology.ie 

Tai chi ch’uan

Performed daily by millions of Chinese people, tai chi aims to improve the flow of chi (energy), calm the mind and promote self healing using sequences of slow, graceful movements.

It is a non-combative martial art, and ideally should be performed outdoors. It is best to learn in classes where the teacher can correct your posture, although videos/DVDs are also an option for learning the basic techniques. For a noticeable benefit, daily practice is recommended.


Yoga is a way of promoting flexibility and strength in mind and body. It can improve posture, muscle tone and mobility. It can also help relaxation. Yoga positions have evolved over thousands of years as a way of stretching and readjusting the balance of the spine (the structural and nervous centre of the body). Asanas (positions) move the body in many different directions and this, together with special yoga breathing, stimulates muscles and joints, circulation, digestion and the nervous and endocrine systems.

There are many books available and most gyms, local centres and leisure centres offer yoga classes. While yoga can be useful in combating stiffness in arthritis, you should seek your doctor’s advice since not all the positions are suitable for people with a limited range of movement in their joints or with replacement joints.

Back to top

Other therapies you may want to explore


Pronounced ‘chi gong’ this is a system of easy-to-learn movements, breathing and meditation designed to improve the circulation of chi (life energy) around the body.

Reiki healing

This involves a therapist placing their hands in 12 different positions over the body to treat all of the major organs and glands and restore the balance of chi (energy).

Shiatsu massage 

Shiatsu means ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese and involves using fingers to apply stretching and squeezing movements to break up blockages in the energy flow.


This treatment aims to restore health through purifying techniques using herbal remedies, but also diet, yoga postures, meditation, breathing exercises and massage.


This relies on the body’s own ability to heal itself – with a little help. It uses dietary and lifestyle changes, as well as other techniques including herbs, hydrotherapy, yoga, massage and osteopathy.

Back to top

Medicine and diet-related therapies

Nutritional therapy 

This uses diet and dietary supplements, such as vitamins, as a basis for treatment. Nutritional therapists believe that most chronic illnesses, including arthritis, can be helped or slowed down with the right nutritional methods.

Arthritis Ireland’s booklet ‘Healthy Eating and Arthritis’ contains more information on the most commonly taken supplements for people with arthritis and further information is also available on www.arthritisireland.ie 


Herbalism works by stimulating the natural healing processes of the body, rebalancing and cleansing it. Like the synthetic drugs used in orthodox medicine, herbs have antibacterial and anti-viral properties. Practitioners believe that if correctly prescribed, herbs can be combined and targeted to activate, regulate and heal any organ in the body, unless the tissue has been completely destroyed.

Because treatment is aimed at restoring the natural balance of the body, a herbalist may suggest dietary changes as well as a prescription of herbal medicine.


Homeopathy is based on the principle that ‘like is cured by like’. Homeopathic remedies use minute amounts of natural substances to stimulate the body's own defenses against specific symptoms.

Homeopathic remedies generally come from vegetables or minerals – and sometimes animals. Although some are potentially toxic they are used in such dilute form that there is no danger. Side effects are unusual, and remedies are not normally harmful when taken alongside conventional medicines.

Medical homeopaths are doctors or other health professionals who have additional qualifications in homeopathy. Non-medical homeopaths are professionals who only practice homeopathy. Using a medical homeopath offers you the additional reassurance that your practitioner has conventional medical skills, but the quality of the homeopathic treatment won’t necessarily be better.


Irish Society of Homeopaths by email on [email protected]

visit their website www.irishhomeopathy.ie

Back to top

Mind and emotion therapies


The aim of counselling is to help you explore problems by talking freely and confidentially to a specially trained person about the things that worry or affect you – including your illness. Counselling should always be an equal partnership between you and your therapist.

Counsellors encourage you to make your own decisions and support you in putting these into practice. Successful counselling can also give you an opportunity to express any anger or frustration you may be feeling as a result of your arthritis. It can also help you manage stress, come to terms with a new diagnosis and help you change your lifestyle if that is needed.

There are well-established routes for appropriately trained counsellors and psychotherapists to become professionally accredited – so fi nding someone who belongs to a recognised body, such as the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, should not be a problem. You may need to try several counsellors before fi nding one who is right for you.


Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy by email on [email protected] 

visit their website www.iacp.ie 


Meditation is essentially relaxation for the mind. It helps people by allowing them the time and space to achieve a better awareness of the self, and of their relationship with their environment. It can be effective in helping people manage their stress or a stress-related illness. There are a number of different forms of meditation, sometimes focusing on breathing or on a mantra – a calming word which is repeated over and over.

Meditation is best practiced in a comfortable position with eyes closed and each muscle group relaxed. You can learn the techniques in a class or at home with a book or CD.

Analytical psychotherapy 

This is based on verbal communication with the therapist who will use the ideas of Jung and Freud to help you explore your fears, expectations and behavioural patterns. The aim is to increase your selfunderstanding and ability to view the world objectively.

Autogenic training 

Autogenic means ‘generated from within’ and this therapy aims to teach you to relax and decrease stress through a series of basic mental and physical exercises.


This is a technique for inducing relaxation to relieve certain symptoms or bring about a change in lifestyle. It can help control pain, relieve stress and help combat addictions. All hypnosis is self-induced, although a therapist can help you get into a hypnotic state more easily.

Music therapy 

Music is known to stimulate the release of chemicals in the brain – helping alleviate depression and creating a sense of well being. It can also stimulate the release of endorphins which protect the body against pain by relaxing it.

Spiritual healing 

Spiritual healers aim to treat your spirit as well as your body and mind by channelling healing energies usually through their hands. They also aim to re-energise and relax you, enabling you to draw on your natural resources to deal with illness or injury.

Back to top


Arthritis Ireland’s helpline provides practical and emotional support and information to people with arthritis and their families. The lines are open Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm on LoCall 1890 252846/01-6618188 [email protected] 

Sign-up for Arthritis Ireland news and updates  Donate