Alternative treatments for pain: Telling fact from fraud

You’ve seen the ads on TV, online, in magazines, or even at the drugstore. They promise to end your back pain, stop your headaches, or fix your sore joints. The treatments they’re selling may be “traditional” and “natural,” or “the latest scientific breakthrough”– and all available without a doctor’s prescription.

You may be tempted to try some of these remedies, especially if your current treatment isn’t working as well as you’d like. But these treatments usually have not been tested as carefully as the treatments your doctor or healthcare provider recommends. Some can be unsafe, and some may not work at all. Before you add any new therapy, you need to know if it’s right for you—and if it’s worth your time and money.

What makes a medical treatment “alternative”?

Many of the healthcare products and treatments that you can buy without seeing a doctor or healthcare provider are called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). A therapy is called complementary when it’s used in addition to conventional medical treatment from your doctor. It’s called alternative when it’s used instead of standard treatment. CAM treatments may include things like massage, acupuncture, herbs, vitamins, and meditation.

Some CAM treatments can be useful in managing pain. Back pain is the most common reason people use CAM. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) pays for studies to learn about how CAM therapies work. You can talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about CAM treatments that might help you.

But because the government doesn’t control CAM the way it does prescription medicines, doctors, other healthcare providers and hospitals, sometimes CAM products or therapies can be used for health fraud.

What is health fraud and how can it harm you?

Health fraud is a specific type of scam. It’s when the people selling a product or treatment say it will prevent or treat an illness or a condition, without proof that it works. People spend billions of dollars each year on pain products that haven’t been tested or don’t work. Scam treatments can:

  • Waste time and money
  • Get in the way of other helpful treatments
  • Directly harm your health

Anyone can be fooled by false health claims. But unfortunately, medical scams often target people with chronic pain. It can be hard to find the right treatment for chronic pain, treatments can be expensive, and some have serious side effects. So it’s natural that you might want to try something that promises great results with less trouble and expense. But if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Health scams also try to get you to spend money without thinking it through first. The ads may offer you two months of pills for the price of one – but only if you buy right away. They may make it sound like only the first few callers will be allowed to buy the product. Or they may ask you to sign up for weekly treatments before you have even tried one. Remember that a treatment isn’t a bargain if it doesn’t work. Do your homework before you buy anything.

How to protect yourself from pain treatment scams and frauds

If you’re thinking about using a CAM treatment, get as much information as you can first.

  • Look for medical research that says the treatment works. Use trustworthy health information websites (see links below). If a website sells the treatment, look other places as well. You can also find the latest research at the public library, or the medical library at your local hospital. Ask the reference librarian to help you.
  • Ask your doctor or healthcare provider what they think about the treatment. Make sure you tell your provider about any over-the-counter or CAM therapy that you use, since it could change the way your other treatments affect you.
  • Avoid discounts, deals, and free offers. It may be hard to pass up a bargain, but “deals” on healthcare should set off your scam detector. Never give out your insurance or Medicare information to get a free offer or a discount.
  • If you think you’ve been a victim of a health scam, file a report with the Food and Drug Administration here or here.


For safety information on a product or practice, go to the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine at the National Institutes of Health website.

For information on herbs and dietary supplements, go here.

For advice on finding a CAM practitioner, go here.


Gaul, C., Schmidt, T., Czaja, E., Eismann, R., & Zierz, S. (2011). Attitudes towards complementary and alternative medicine in chronic pain syndromes: A questionnaire-based comparison between primary headache and low back pain. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 11: 89. Retrieved from

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2011). What is complementary and alternative medicine. Retrieved from

Tyler, J. M. (2001). Health Fraud. U. S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from