Complementary therapies for terminal illness

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Therapy Directory Content Team

Some people suffering from advanced progressive illnesses may choose to have complementary therapies alongside their medical treatment. These therapies can help support the patient to live as comfortably as possible.

Here, we'll explore what palliative care is and how complementary therapies can help people cope better emotionally, psycho-spiritually and physically.

What is palliative care? 

Palliative care refers to the care of patients suffering from advanced progressive illnesses that are not responsive to curative treatment. It is a holistic approach that incorporates physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care services to meet the needs of patients and help them to achieve the best quality of life.

Palliative care aims to make the patient as comfortable as possible from when they first learn they have a terminal illness. When someone is nearing the end of their life, this is usually referred to as end-of-life care.

We recognise that some people may prefer to use the terms 'life-limiting' or 'incurable illness'. On this page, we refer to an incurable condition as 'terminal', but please use the language that you feel most comfortable with.

Who provides palliative care? 

Typically, a team of multi-professional healthcare experts will provide palliative care - helping patients cope better with pain and distressing symptoms associated with their terminal illness. The types of professionals involved will be specific to your needs.

You can choose where you receive palliative treatment. This can be at home, in a hospital, a nursing or care home, or a hospice. 

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Choosing complementary therapies when you are dying 

Receiving palliative care does not mean that your existing treatments, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy, will stop. However, a number of patients experiencing a heavy symptom burden and a terminal diagnosis are also turning to complementary therapies to provide additional relief from physical and emotional side effects. These therapies are thought to be helpful in easing anxiety, stress and pain, so they can be used alongside the medical treatment you're currently receiving.  

Complementary therapies look to help restore physical, mental, and spiritual well-being while reducing symptoms and relieving pain. They do not treat or cure medical conditions, so should never replace conventional medicine. 

Why choose complementary therapy for palliative care? 

When used in tandem with conventional medical treatments and traditional forms of palliative care, complementary therapies can provide a number of benefits to patients with life-threatening illnesses. Their increasing take-up is likely to be a result of the positive effects they can have on the spiritual, mental and physical well-being of patients and their carers - helping to improve quality of life and, when necessary, quality and dignity of death. 

When a person is suffering from a progressive or terminal illness, it is likely that their body will reach a point when it no longer responds to curative treatments. Through various approaches such as touch, sound and essential oils, complementary therapy can help patients to cope better with this prognosis - providing a sense of calm and relaxation while alleviating any fear and pain associated with the illness or treatment. 

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness can be scary for both the patient and their loved ones. For some, symptom control provided by complementary therapies becomes a key factor in making this process seem less scary, and often helps the patient to come to terms with their diagnosis. 

Types of complementary therapies used in palliative care 

There is a range of complementary therapies that can be used alongside palliative care, and all generally produce the same salutary effects on the body, mind and spirit - aiming to control pain and other symptoms to optimise quality of life. 

However variations in terms of aims and approach do exist, and so it is important that palliative care patients seek the advice of a healthcare professional before booking an appointment for a specific complementary therapy. This will ensure patients can enjoy the safest and most effective treatment depending on the nature of their illness and the emotional and physical needs they wish to fulfil. 

Here are some of the most common types of complementary therapy used in alongside palliative care:


Reiki is a type of energy-healing bodywork that uses hand-based techniques to help alleviate physical, mental and emotional illnesses. It works by bringing balance to the electromagnetic field that surrounds a person internally and externally - restoring healthy energy and stimulating the release of built-up, stagnant energy. This helps the body to recover its healing abilities and thus leads to improved overall well-being. 

Used in palliative care, Reiki is used as a healing and calming tool - helping to make patients feel deeply relaxed, relieving stress and tension, and helping them to cope better with the side effects of any medical treatment. Palliative care cancer patients in particular tend to see an improvement in their pain when they attend regular Reiki treatments. This is often due to the therapist spending time with the person and touching them. Touch has a powerful effect on emotion and after the rush and stress of hospitals, patients often find peace in a Reiki session. The gentle use of touch and soft hand movements provide reassurance and comfort and can make a huge difference to a patient's well-being. 

Whilst hands are most commonly placed on the body in Reiki, they can also be off. This is useful for people who may find touch painful or uncomfortable as a result of their illness or treatment. 


Acupuncture refers to the complementary therapy in which specific points of the body are stimulated using a variety of techniques - most notably the insertion of ultra-thin, sterile needles. It is most commonly used for relieving emotional and physical stress and helping to restore a natural rhythm to the healing powers of the mind and body. 

Acupuncture has an increasing role in the management of cancer, including the symptoms and side effects of treatment. It has been shown to ease pain, nausea and fatigue, reduce hot sweats and hot flushes, as well as improve breathlessness. It is also thought to help relieve sleeping difficulties and signs of depression and anxiety. 

Regular acupuncture appointments can also provide patients with time to reflect and escape everyday stress. Many will develop a close relationship with their acupuncturist, who will address in every session how the patient is feeling and whether there have been any changes in health or symptoms since the last appointment. Acupuncture is tailored to the individual patient - providing a safe and relaxing, low-cost and effective therapy. 

Massage therapy

Massage therapy can help tackle pain, discomfort and emotional distress and is considered a valuable complementary component of palliative care. The pressing, touching and manipulation of soft tissue can provide relaxation and respite for patients, whilst also helping to relieve a number of symptoms associated with progressive and terminal illnesses. 

There are many variations of massage therapy, and all treatments can be tailored to meet the unique physical and emotional needs of patients to help them cope with the stress of living with serious illness. Each variation has different aims and approaches, but all will generally have the same benefits. These include: 

  • decreased pain
  • decreased anxiety
  • improved well-being
  • increased relaxation
  • relief from pain and stiffness

Palliative care cancer patients are thought to be highly responsive to massage therapy - particularly the more gentle styles. For those who have had surgery, massage therapy can help to promote healing at incision sites and may even prevent scarring. 


Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils to help alleviate symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. Essential oils are concentrated essences taken from the flowers, fruit, seeds, leaves and bark of certain plants, and can be added to a bath, dabbed onto your pillow or inhaled directly. The most common method of aromatherapy is massage, in which oils such as lavender, rosemary and camomile are rubbed into the body using a sequence of gentle movements. 

Aromatherapy massage for palliative care is becoming increasingly popular as it can help patients feel less affected by the physical and emotional side effects of their illness. These benefits are likely to come from a combination of effects the oils have on the body (which can be achieved through absorption into the bloodstream when they are massaged into the skin) and sense of smell. 

There are hundreds of different essential oils and each has its own distinct health benefit and smell. Lavender, for example, is a very calming scent and is thought to help with sleeping problems, while peppermint is a very powerful, fresh smell that is commonly used to soothe fever. These stronger scents are important because once the brain picks up on them, the body instantly reacts, resulting in a quickened heart and breathing rate followed by a rush of calm or excitement. This is how essential oils in aromatherapy massage can help to soothe the mind and induce feelings of happiness - making them particularly beneficial for palliative care patients who are likely to be psychologically distressed.

Physically, aromatherapy massage - especially with oils such as ginger and cardamom - is believed to help reduce the side effects of cancer treatments such as nausea and vomiting. Palliative care cancer patients undergoing aromatherapy massage may also notice a difference in their pain and energy levels.


Reflexology is a type of massage that involves the application of pressure to certain points on the feet. It is based upon the principle that each reflex in the foot is linked to a specific area of the body - so when pressure is applied to the feet it can promote healing and pain relief to several different body parts. 

Reflexology treatment is a popular complementary therapy for palliative care, largely because of its convenience; it can be performed on patients without them having to be moved about or repositioned, thus ensuring utmost comfort and ease for them. It is also regarded as one of the most effective complementary therapies for helping to relieve common side effects and physical problems associated with cancer treatment. These include:

  • nausea
  • diarrhoea
  • constipation
  • pain
  • poor appetite
  • communication difficulties
  • tiredness
  • sleeping problems

In addition to physical benefits, reflexology is also believed to help palliative care patients on an emotional and spiritual level. After being diagnosed with a life-threatening or terminal illness many patients will experience a range of emotions, from shock, fear and anger, through to frustration, helplessness and maybe even guilt.

Furthermore, many will have to undergo surgery and treatments that could alter their appearance, potentially making them feel further disconnected from their physical selves. Reflexology treatment involves positive and therapeutic touch, so can help to close this gap and restore a sense of self and emotional contentment - providing a release for patients.

Bowen therapy

Bowen therapy, or the Bowen technique, can provide a range of benefits to people receiving palliative care. Using gentle rolling movements on certain points on the body, it aims to rebalance energies, encourage healing and reduce pain. There are many theories as to how Bowen therapy actually works. While no concrete evidence has been found, many theories conclude that it has something to do with how the brain reacts to neural stimuli. The brain emits around 600,000 signals per second. These signals then receive information from the body, which is turned into a movement. 

The rolling movements and intervals between each sequence in Bowen therapy interfere with signals to the brain. This creates another set of variables for the brain to examine. Once the brain begins to reorder the signals it is also able to receive and interpret information coming from other areas of the body. By interfering with the brain's controlled loop circuit of signals, Bowen therapy helps the brain to pinpoint other areas in the body that may need healing and repairing.

In palliative care, Bowen therapy can be used to ease physical discomfort, reduce stress levels and raise energy levels. As the therapy is natural and noninvasive, it is safe to use alongside conventional medical treatments. 

Finding a complementary therapist 

It's not common for complementary therapies to be provided on the NHS. If you choose to receive palliative care in a hospice, they may offer free or low-cost therapies. Most people access complementary therapy privately. We always recommend that you check that your therapist is qualified. 

Most complementary therapies are not regulated in the UK, meaning anyone can practise them. However, many therapists register with a professional body to prove that they have met the minimum standard of practice. On Therapy Directory, our verified professionals have shown proof of membership with a professional organisation or a relevant qualification and insurance, so you can be safe in the knowledge that they are experienced. 

If you or someone you know is receiving palliative care and you'd like to try a complementary therapy alongside, you can find a professional using our search tool. 

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