Alternative Therapies Offer Comfort at the End-of-Life

Finding peace and comfort is a priority for end-of-life patients. Adding complementary and alternative therapies to standard treatment may give you relief from pain and other distressing symptoms like nausea, shortness of breath, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness.

Key takeaways:

What is CAM?


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to therapies not usually offered with standard medical treatment.

The term “complementary” describes therapy used together with standard treatment. “Alternative medicine” originally meant treatment used instead of standard treatment. Today, however, the word refers to therapy used with or instead of conventional medicine.

Two more terms, “integrative health” and “integrative medicine,” refer to healthcare services offering a mix of complementary, alternative, and standard treatment. The goal is to treat the whole person – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – not just their disease.

CAM therapies vary widely and are growing in popularity. Some of the most common are acupuncture, massage, yoga, meditation, Reiki, and music. Patients may also choose treatments like hypnotherapy, aromatherapy, breathing exercises, pet therapy, art therapy, tai chi, guided imagery, herbal medicines, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, and cultural and religious practices.

Are CAM therapies safe?

The healthcare industry considers CAM therapies safe because they rarely, if ever, harm patients, especially when applied by well-trained providers. Many treatments are widely used, and most are non-invasive, meaning they don’t insert a device into your body.

Acupuncture uses very thin needles and, as a result, is considered an invasive therapy. Because acupuncture is one of the few widely studied CAM therapies, it’s still considered safe and effective for many types of pain, even though it is invasive.

Are CAM therapies effective?


The healthcare industry needs more studies to prove CAM’s value. Still, enough research suggests it may improve a patient’s quality of life and quality of death.

With the growing use of complementary therapies, the NIH established The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in 1987. As the NCCIH website confirms, evidence is growing that CAM therapies may improve your quality of life.

When an incurable disease leads you closer to death, it is okay to use every available therapy to be more comfortable and peaceful. Each patient is different and will respond uniquely to various treatments. Even if science has yet to prove a therapy’s usefulness, you get to choose your treatment based on what works for you.

Here’s more to consider about particular CAM therapies.


For most people, acupuncture is a calming and relaxing treatment.

Starting in China about 2000 years ago, acupuncture uses small needles to balance your body’s many related systems. Not fully understood scientifically, the pins may stimulate nerves that send signals to your brain to release pain-reducing hormones. Acupuncture experts also say acupuncture balances your energy – called qi – as it flows throughout pathways in the body.

Most patients don’t feel the pins, but if you do feel irritation or pain, the acupuncturist can remove an uncomfortable needle. Patients often find the treatment so relaxing they fall asleep.

Penn Medicine, an academic medical center for the University of Pennsylvania, published a study on breast cancer patients with joint pain caused by cancer medicine. The women receiving acupuncture for the pain noted a 43% decrease in pain levels and a 53% decrease in overall reports of pain.

Many other acupuncture studies show similar results for various types of pain, including headaches. The American Cancer Society lists it as a therapy that may treat some types of nausea. Acupuncture can even strengthen your immune system and relieve stress by easing symptoms.


Research also says that benefits from acupuncture may last longer than other CAM therapies.


If you love massages, you won’t be surprised to hear science does, too. Like acupuncture, massage offers quick and long-lasting benefits for pain and anxiety. One study found massage effects lasted for at least 48 hours with a 50% decline in overall symptoms, including pain, fatigue, stress, anxiety, nausea, and depression.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), massage could reduce your use of pain medicine like opioids, which is important if your goal is to manage your pain while staying alert and active enough to be with loved ones.

The AMTA also points to studies showing improved nausea, better sleep, a stronger immune system, and reduced lymphatic swelling after massage treatments.

A massage isn’t just a luxury; it may be necessary for your quality of life.


Reiki started in Japan to bring healing through energy forces – the unseen forces keeping you alive, happy, and healthy. Using their hands, Reiki practitioners sense energy blocks and infuse the area with positive energy. This way, Reiki may clear and heal energy pathways to allow life forces – ki in Japanese – to flow freely again.

Like all CAM therapies, we need more research on Reiki, but current studies are promising for end-of-life patients. Reiki may reduce pain, decrease anxiety and depression, and improve the quality of life for people facing incurable illnesses. It may even relieve pain and anxiety in children with cancer and other terminal illnesses.

Music therapy


Music therapy is the clinical use of music to improve your health. First used in 1945 with military patients in Army hospitals, music therapy often includes listening, singing, playing instruments, or writing music. It treats a wide range of mental and physical illnesses.

The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care published a 2018 study reporting that 96% of the study’s patients reacted positively to music therapy. In 2019, the journal published another study showing decreased symptoms in patients after music therapy. Patients and their families both found comfort, escape, relaxation, and reflection through the music.


Meditation is another therapy end-of-life patients turn to for symptom relief. Studies say it may reduce blood pressure, anxiety and depression, irritable bowel flare-ups, and poor sleep.

Deep mediation requires an instructor or guide for most people, which you may find through local spiritual or religious groups. But meditation can also be simple and short, like mindfulness exercises, prayer, or even simple death meditations. Easy yoga poses are meditative and can relax your heart and respiratory rate.

Faith and rituals

When patients face incurable diseases, many turn to spiritual and cultural traditions for comfort, peace, and possibly healing. While many studies say spiritual and cultural practices improve quality of life, secular rituals also boost positive feelings and reduce negative ones.

Facing serious illness by yourself can increase pain and worsen your condition. Traditions and rituals can help whether they come from your faith, family, or culture. Continuing these practices with other people or restarting old ones could reduce loneliness and even improve your physical symptoms.

How do I find the right therapy?

The best way to find the right complementary care for you is to talk with a palliative care specialist. Trained to work with your disease specialists, palliative care doctors offer the best symptom care when you face an incurable illness. You can contact a palliative care provider on your own or through your insurance provider or disease specialist.

You may also find trusted CAM treatments through local hospitals, disease specialists, or national disease organizations like the American Cancer Society. If you are in hospice, ask what CAM therapies they offer.

You can also contact CAM practitioners directly. Before you do, talk with your insurance about coverage. Next, find out as much as possible about a CAM provider’s credentials and claims. Their training should be high-quality, and their claims about the therapy should be reasonable. Such treatments are not cures or miracles. They are therapies used with standard treatment.

Not all CAM therapies are fully researched, but your comfort takes priority at the end of life as your symptoms worsen. Sometimes CAM treatments provide the best symptom relief. It’s okay to explore and try various therapies, even when the science is unclear.

Experts advise reading about therapies first, discussing them with your doctor, monitoring how they work, and trusting your instincts about each one. Because every patient is different, in the end, you get to choose the treatments you want, whether science offers ample data or not.


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