Complementary and alternative therapies are therapies that are used alongside conventional medicine. However, it’s important to remember that anti-HIV drugs have consistently been shown to be the only effective treatment for suppressing HIV.

You can use complementary and alternative therapies alongside your conventional HIV treatment with anti-HIV drugs. For some people they can be effective in helping to relieve some side effects or symptoms associated with HIV and anti-HIV drugs. They can also sometimes help to improve your general health, but they cannot stop HIV from replicating in your body.

Complementary and alternative therapies come in many different forms. There are traditional healing practices such as acupuncture and herbal remedies. Then there are physical therapies like massage, reflexology, shiatsu and yoga. There’s also energy work such as crystal therapy and reiki and there are relaxation techniques, such as meditation.

There is little doubt that some complementary therapies, such as massage and meditation, can help with problems such as stress and low energy. Likewise acupuncture has been shown to help with managing pain. If you are interested in any of these therapies, get as much information as you can before deciding to start. Speak to your doctor about it to make sure you won’t be doing anything that may not be appropriate for someone with HIV or taking anti-HIV drugs. Find out how they work, if there are any risks and if the therapist is trained, certified or licensed.

"Since being diagnosed, I have tried numerous complementary therapies like acupuncture Chinese herbs, aromatherapy, massage, reflexology and reiki, and have now found that sports massage and reflexology are very beneficial. They help me to relax and they also help my body maintain its energy levels and energy flows. I certainly know when I’ve missed a session! I would say try them and see what works for you." (Tom, 45)

Some herbal supplements and remedies should not be taken with certain anti-HIV drugs. For example St. John’s Wort and garlic supplements can interact with some anti-HIV drugs (protease inhibitors and NNRTIs) and stop them working properly.1 It’s important to remember that just because some supplements or alternative treatments are described as ‘herbal’ or ‘natural’, it doesn’t mean that they will be mild in strength or not have any unwanted effects on the body. If you are taking anti-HIV drugs and thinking about taking any herbal supplements (or vitamins for that matter) then speak to your doctor before you do to make sure it’s safe.

As for other complementary therapies, some should not be used if you have certain conditions. Talk to your doctor first, and, if the therapist is properly trained, he or she should be able to advise you about what would and would not be suitable for you to try.

Complementary and alternative therapies are not generally available on the NHS, however there are services available free for people living with HIV, often via your clinic.

THT also provide complementary therapies to people with HIV in certain areas of London. If you call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 they will be able to tell you what services they have available.

Complementary and alternative therapies may also be available through HIV services close to where you live. You’ll find links to local HIV services in London in the section on help and support. If you live outside London, or can’t see a service local to you in the help and support section, call THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 as they should be able to give you the details of services close to you.

If you want to see a therapist privately then the charges will probably vary a great deal. The Complementary Health Trust should be able to give you advice on finding a suitable private therapist.

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1 Points to remember about complementary therapies. NAM Life.