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Complementary Therapies and HIV

April 9, 2015

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Complementary Therapies and HIV

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Decisions about your health care are important -- including those about what types of therapy to use. Most health care providers will agree that using complementary (also called alternative or integrative) therapies with standard medicines can help people living with HIV (HIV+) live longer, healthier lives. Most often, people living with HIV use complementary therapies to ease side effects of HIV drugs, boost their immune systems, or improve their overall health.

Complementary therapies refer to a series of health care treatments that are most often not considered to be part of conventional (Western) medicine. These types of treatments can include acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, homeopathy, hypnosis, massage therapy, Ayurveda, relaxation techniques, nutritional supplements, energy work, and traditional healing.

An important note: while it is important for everyone to tell their health care providers about any and all complementary or integrative practices they use, it is especially important for people living with HIV. Since HIV and HIV drugs affect the immune system, we recommend talking to your health care provider about any complementary treatments before you use them. This gives your provider a full picture of what you do to manage your health and makes sure the treatments you choose are safe and helpful for you.


What Are Some Common Complementary Therapies?


Acupuncture is a practice developed in China several thousand years ago. It involves the use of small thin metal needles that are inserted in the skin at particular points on the body. By activating these specific points, acupuncturists look to remove blockages in the flow of one's life force or vital energy, called qi (pronounced "chee"). In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), energy or qi is believed to circulate through the body. Proper circulation or flow of qi promotes health and well-being. Acupressure uses finger-pressure rather than needles to stimulate healing points on the body and achieve proper flow of qi.

There are now many studies that demonstrate the potential benefits of acupuncture. A partial list of conditions for which acupuncture can be helpful includes: pain, headache, nausea, diarrhea, menstrual cramps, and menopausal symptoms. In the US, many states require acupuncturists to be licensed (L.Ac), and an increasing number of insurance plans cover acupuncture. You can find a licensed acupuncturist through the organization that grants the licenses: the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Be sure your acupuncturist uses only disposable, sterile needles.


Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils to improve emotional or physical health. These oils are inhaled or rubbed into the skin, and are generally used to reduce pain, improve mood, and promote relaxation. There is not strong evidence to support the immune-boosting effects of aromatherapy. However, tea tree oil has a demonstrated anti-microbial effect on the skin. It is important that you discuss any use of essential oils with your health care provider.


Biofeedback is a technique that trains people to control some of the body's operations that usually occur without our having to think about them, such as breathing rate, heart rate, or blood pressure. By being connected to devices that measure these actions and watching these measurements (e.g., heart rate) on a monitor, people can affect the inner workings of their bodies and gain some control over the body's "involuntary" actions. Biofeedback is most often used to help people with headaches and pain.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.

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