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Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are given alongside conventional medical treatment. These may help you to feel more relaxed or to sleep better. They can also be used to relieve pain and tension in the body. 

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Complementary therapies include:

  • acupressure
  • acupuncture
  • aromatherapy
  • art therapy
  • hypnotherapy
  • massage
  • reflexology
  • reiki
  • relaxation
  • shiatsu massage
  • meditation
  • yoga, t’ai chi and other exercise 
  • drama therapy
  • music therapy

Complementary therapies aren’t designed to take the place of traditional care, but some of their benefits are now widely recognised. 

It’s a good idea to tell your doctor or nurse if you are thinking of having complementary treatments. You should also tell the complementary therapist about any medical conditions that you have.

Finding and paying for complementary therapy 

Some complementary therapies are provided free of charge by the NHS, so speak to your doctor or nurse about what's available in your area. Your local hospice or a local support group may also offer free or reduced cost therapies. Marie Curie has nine hospices throughout the UK or you can search for a local hospice   on the Hospices UK website.

If you'd like to find a private therapist, the British Complementary Therapies Association has a directory of qualified therapists   listed by area on its website. Private therapists can be expensive, so it's worth checking the cost first.

Alternative therapies

Alternative therapies are different from complementary therapies: they are given instead of conventional treatment, not alongside it. Be very cautious of alternative therapists who claim that they can cure cancer and other illnesses. Genuine therapists are unlikely to make inappropriate claims about the benefits of their therapies.

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Types of complementary therapies

There are many different types of complementary therapies. Each Marie Curie Hospice offers a wide range. You might be offered holistic therapies, which are treatments that use a range of techniques to balance the mind, body and spirit.

Acupressure

Acupressure is similar to acupuncture ‒ an ancient Chinese practice involving the stimulation of specific points on the body. Like acupuncture, it focuses on the belief that energy or ‘chi’ flows through the body along channels. Practitioners believe that energy flow can be disturbed by imbalances in the body, and acupressure aims to restore it so that it flows in a smooth and balanced way.

Acupressure doesn’t use needles, but involves applying gentle pressure to the most relevant points along the channels. 

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Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice involving the stimulation of special points on the body with fine needles. Like acupressure, it’s based on the belief that energy flows through the body along channels or lines of energy or ‘chi’.

Fine needles are inserted into acupressure points along the channels with the aim of clearing blocked energy, by stimulating the body’s response and helping to restore natural balance. The sterile needles are very fine and don’t go in very deep, so you may feel a slight prick or nothing at all.

Acupuncture   is often provided in pain clinics, and is claimed to help relieve some side effects of cancer treatment. It’s also been found effective in reducing tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, and shortness of breath, and enhancing feelings of wellbeing.

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Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy involves the controlled use of essential oils, extracted from plants, flowers, trees, bushes and herbs. These oils give off fragrant aromas that are considered to have therapeutic benefits. Some of them can be soothing and relaxing – such as lavender and geranium – and they’re often used in oil burners or sprays to provide a calming atmosphere. A few drops of some essential oils can also be added to bath water. If you have any allergies to certain natural fragrances, make sure that you mention this to the aromatherapist.

Aromatherapy massage combines gentle massage with the medicinal properties of essential oils, which are both inhaled and absorbed through the skin. It makes use of touch and smell and can help to relieve anxiety, and be an enjoyable experience.

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Art therapy

Art therapy gives people the chance to explore creativity and to relax. It’s available in some hospices and hospital information and support centres and can be very enjoyable. Some people find that it helps them to express feelings that may not have been previously brought out in the open. It could help you to relax and become less anxious, and may make you feel physically better.

You might also be interested in music or drama therapy. Ask your local hospice about these.

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Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis or hypnotherapy creates a natural state of heightened awareness, where you may be able to open your mind to beneficial suggestions that will help make positive changes in your life. It’s been found to help people cope with a terminal illness and to improve relaxation.

The hypnotic state is said to be similar to the warm, calm, secure feeling that we often have as we drift off to sleep or as we slowly wake in the morning. Techniques range from guided relaxation to empowering people to take control through suggestion. It doesn’t involve falling asleep and it’s likely that you’ll remember the whole experience.

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Massage

Massage involves therapeutic stroking and kneading of the soft tissues of the body. It can be suited to your needs and can help relieve tension and encourage deep relaxation.

Massage treatment has also been found to help people sleep and reduce anxiety. Massage combined with reiki can reduce anxiety, ease breathing, reduce pain, and aid deep relaxation.

Indian head massage

This involves massage of the soft tissue of the shoulders, arms, neck and scalp. It’s believed that these are important energy centres in the body and treating these areas can benefit the whole body. If you find it hard to lie down it can be a good alternative to massage. Some people find it can help to relieve stress and tension headaches and invites a state of calm, peace and tranquillity.

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I’ve had massages at the hospice too. I’ve got arthritis which makes it difficult to put my arms into my shirt sleeves and get dressed. But the massage has really helped. 
Willie, who has a terminal illness

Reflexology

Reflexology involves massage of the feet, lower leg and sometimes hands. Reflexologists believe that every body part, organ and gland is linked with a corresponding area on the foot. By applying gentle pressure to an area of the foot, it may have a positive effect on the corresponding part of the body. Reflexologists believe the hand is linked with other parts of the body in a similar way.

You can have reflexology sitting or lying down – you only have to take off your shoes and socks –and only very gentle pressure is applied. It can be relaxing and some people say it improves their quality of life.

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Reiki

Reiki means ‘universal energy’. Reiki practitioners believe that this energy flows through all living things and is vital to wellbeing.

When you have a reiki treatment the therapist places their hands either on or just above certain points of your body. They believe that energy flows from them through to you, according to your needs. People often report a feeling of deep relaxation or a sense of emotional release. If you have reiki you remain fully clothed and you can sit or lie down.

Some people say that reiki has improved their sense of wellbeing. It can also be deeply relaxing and can help relieve pain, improve sleep and reduce anxiety.

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Relaxation

Relaxation therapy aims to promote a state of balance and peace. Relaxation techniques include:

  • relaxing groups of muscles
  • breathing exercises
  • guided meditations where you imagine relaxing scenes (sometimes called visualisation)

Meditation is also a form of relaxation, which has been used in eastern cultures for thousands of years to help people to achieve a sense of calm, improve concentration and relax.

Yoga, t’ai chi and other exercise can also be good for relaxation.

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Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a Japanese word meaning ‘finger pressure’, and although it’s a kind of massage it’s given when you’re fully clothed. It involves the therapist using fingers, thumbs, elbows and sometimes feet and knees to apply gentle pressure to key points along the channels or meridians (energy lines) in the body.

It’s similar to acupressure, and practitioners believe that it helps to stimulate energy flow. It’s been shown to improve energy levels, relaxation, relieve symptoms and increase confidence.

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Touch therapy

This is a series of holding techniques gently applied when you’re fully clothed, either seated on a chair or lying on a bed. 

The HEARTS Process

This is similar to touch therapy and includes aromatherapy, the use of soft towels or blankets and guided imagery (visualisation). The Royal College of Nursing website   has more details.

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External websites


This content is provided for general information purposes only. It's not medical, financial, legal or personal advice. We suggest that you consult with a qualified professional about your individual circumstances. How our information is created and how it's used.

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