Physical therapies

Physical therapies aim to achieve feelings of well-being by working the body and mind. There are a number of therapies available to try.

Western medical acupuncture is based on current medical knowledge and evidence-based medicine. It is very similar to traditional acupuncture. This technique involves inserting sterile needles into certain “trigger points”, just below the skin. This is thought to stimulate the nerves and cause the release of natural chemicals into the body. 

Other mind and body physical therapies involve more physical techniques, such as yoga or Tai chi and qi gong. These therapies use gentle, controlled, low-impact movements combined with breathing exercises. They can be done by people of all ages and of varying levels of fitness.

It’s a good idea to speak to your doctor before using any complementary therapies.

What are physical therapies?

Complementary therapies that work directly on your body, whether by a therapist or by yourself, are called physical therapies. They include acupuncture and mind/body physical therapies.


Acupuncture that has its origins in Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on there being a system of energy channels in the body.

Traditional therapists believe that needles inserted into the skin release the flow of energy and restore a healthy balance to the body. Traditional therapists are not registered health professionals. This section is about western medical acupuncture.

Western medical acupuncture

This is based on current medical knowledge and evidence-based medicine. It’s sometimes available within the NHS.

During an acupuncture session, the therapist inserts fine sterile needles just below the skin into certain “trigger points”. The trigger points are specific places thought to affect the nerves in the skin and muscle. This can send messages to the brain. Stimulating the nerves in this way may release natural chemicals in the body such as endorphins. Endorphins are hormones that give you a feeling of well-being.

An acupuncturist may be a member of a team working in a pain clinic or part of a palliative care (symptom control) team. Some doctors, nurses and physiotherapists are trained in western medical acupuncture.

Some studies show acupuncture has helped reduce sickness in people who have had surgery or chemotherapy. There is also some evidence that acupuncture may help reduce pain in people with cancer, but more research is needed.

There’s some evidence that acupuncture may help in treating other problems such as breathlessness and a dry mouth. Acupuncture is also sometimes used to treat menopausal symptoms, but it’s not yet clear how effective it is for this.

In general, when carried out by a trained professional, acupuncture is safe and side effects or complications are rare.

It’s not advisable to have acupuncture if you are having treatment, such as chemotherapy, that could affect your blood count. This may result in a lower than normal number of white blood cells, which increases your risk of infection. You should also avoid acupuncture if you have a lower than normal number of platelets (blood cells that help blood to clot). This can increase your risk of bleeding.

If you have, or are at risk of, lymphoedema, you should avoid having acupuncture in the limb that’s affected or at risk. Lymphoedema is swelling to part of the body caused by damage to the lymphatic system. Check with your doctor if you’re thinking about having acupuncture.

Mind/body physical therapies

Some types of physical activity, such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong, are designed to work both the body and the mind. In general, they use gentle, controlled, low-impact movements combined with breathing exercises. They can be done by people of all ages and of varying levels of fitness.


There are different types of yoga. They all involve positioning your body in different ways, breathing exercises and some form of meditation or relaxation.

Some types of yoga use very gentle stretching, movement and meditation. Others may involve more vigorous physical movement and dietary changes.

Yoga is generally safe, but people with some types of cancer may need to adapt some of the positions so they’re easier to do.

Some people who have cancer find that yoga helps them cope with their illness and feel better generally. A recent study found that people who followed a four-week yoga course after they completed their cancer treatment had fewer problems sleeping and felt less fatigued.

Some small studies have shown that yoga may also be useful in relieving menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and joint pains, but more research is needed. Some hospitals offer yoga classes. We have more information on how to find a yoga class near you.

Tai Chi and Qi Gong

Tai chi and qi gong (sometimes spelt ‘chi kung’) come from Chinese medical traditions. They include parts of mind-body therapies, energy-based therapies and physical therapies.

Both tai chi and qi gong focus on building strength, balance and flexibility through slow, fluid movements. They also use mental imagery and deep breathing.

Together, the physical and mental exercises can help to improve general health and create a feeling of well-being.

You can get more information about tai chi or qi gong from complementary therapy organisations.