Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a very diverse field. It includes approaches like massage therapy, acupuncture, homeopathy, and many more.

Many people use some kind of CAM. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) estimated that more than 30 percent of adults used some form of CAM in 2012.

While many people use CAM to promote overall health and wellness, some also use it as a treatment or therapy. Sometimes, people using CAM to treat a health condition may experience a reaction called a healing crisis.

But what exactly is a healing crisis? What causes it to occur? And how long does it last? Continue reading below as we answer all of these questions and more.

A healing crisis is a temporary worsening of symptoms after beginning a CAM treatment. You may also see it called a homeopathic aggravation, a detox reaction, or a cleansing reaction.

In a healing crisis, symptoms briefly worsen before beginning to improve. This is different from an adverse effect of treatment, which is a harmful or undesired reaction that doesn’t improve as treatment continues.

The estimates of how common the healing crisis is vary widely. For example, in the area of homeopathy the healing crisis has been estimated to occur at a frequency of 10 to 75 percent.

The healing crisis is very similar to another type of reaction called a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction (JHR). You may have even heard the terms JHR and healing crisis used interchangeably. However, these are actually two different but very similar reactions.

A JHR is a temporary worsening of symptoms that happens after beginning antibiotic treatment for specific types of bacterial infections. Examples of such infections include syphilis, Lyme disease, and leptospirosis.

People experiencing a JHR may have symptoms like:

While the exact mechanism of the JHR is unclear, it’s believed to be caused by an inflammatory reaction that occurs as the antibiotics act on the bacteria. Typically, a JHR resolves within 24 hours.

It’s important to point out that while the healing crisis is often mentioned in reference to CAM, research on it is still very limited. The NCCIH notes that clinical studies have found little evidence in support of a healing crisis reaction.

The healing crisis is believed to be caused by elimination of toxins or waste products from your body in response to treatment. It’s viewed as a natural part of your body’s healing process. However, scientific research to support this mechanism is very scarce.

There are many anecdotal reports about a healing crisis occurring in response to a variety of CAM approaches. Some examples include:

Healing crisis in homeopathy

The healing crisis is often discussed in relation to homeopathy. Much of the research focuses on minimizing risk by learning how to determine if worsening symptoms are due to a healing crisis or an adverse effect to treatment.

A 2015 study of homeopathy found that 26 percent of participants had worsening symptoms after starting treatment. Out of this group, it was determined that two-thirds were having a healing crisis while one-third were experiencing an adverse effect.

Another study of homeopathy followed 441 participants for two months. Researchers found that 14 percent of participants reported a healing crisis. The severity of the symptoms varied, ranging from slight to intense.

Healing crisis in reflexology

A 2010 study examined using reflexology to help with symptoms of fibromyalgia in a very small group of six women. They found that several symptoms consistent with those of a healing crisis were experienced by all of the women.

Healing crisis in acupuncture

One older study of acupuncture reported potential healing crises. A worsening of symptoms was only observed in a small percentage of treatments (2.8 percent). In this small amount of cases, an improvement was seen 86 percent of the time.

The signs and symptoms of a healing crisis appear to vary from person to person. Generally, you may see them described as flu-like or as a general feeling of unwellness.

Some may experience an intensifying of the symptoms of the condition for which they’re being treated. For example, someone using CAM to treat eczema may notice that eczema gets noticeably worse after starting treatment.

Other symptoms that have been reported in association with the healing crisis include:

Some people may also have an increased feeling of overall well-being after a healing crisis begins, despite the fact that their symptoms have worsened. This can include things like having more energy and getting better sleep.

A healing crisis often begins immediately after starting a CAM treatment. Generally speaking, it only lasts about one to three days. After this period, symptoms begin to improve.

A healing crisis may last longer, sometimes for weeks or months. For example, in the reflexology study mentioned above, the healing crisis lasted several weeks, eventually vanishing after seven or eight weekly reflexology sessions.

There’s no specific treatment for the symptoms of a healing crisis. However, if a healing crisis has you feeling under the weather, here are self-care measures that you can use at home until your symptoms go away:

  • Make sure to stay hydrated.
  • Rest up while you’re experiencing symptoms.
  • Consider over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) for aches and pains
  • Try to avoid foods or drinks that may worsen digestive symptoms.

Since the duration of a healing crisis can vary widely, how do you know when to see a doctor?

One publication suggests that symptoms that worsen and don’t go away after 14 days may be considered an adverse effect of your treatment as opposed to a healing crisis.

It’s a good rule of thumb to talk to a doctor if you develop concerning or worsening symptoms. Plan to see a doctor if you experience symptoms of a healing crisis that don’t begin to get better after several days.

In some cases, it may be necessary to stop the treatment you’ve been using. If this occurs, a new treatment option may be recommended for your condition.

There’s no specific way to prevent a healing crisis from occurring. However, if you’re going to be starting a new CAM therapy, be sure to talk to your provider about any potential side effects or reactions you may experience.

Taking this step can help you to be prepared for the symptoms of a healing crisis if they do occur. Your provider may also be able to give you further tips on how to manage your symptoms and when to contact them if they don’t resolve.

A healing crisis is a temporary worsening of symptoms that happens after you begin a new CAM treatment. It typically lasts only a few days, although in some cases it may go on for weeks or months.

A variety of CAM therapies have been associated with a healing crisis, including detoxing, homeopathy, and acupuncture. However, scientific research into this reaction and its actual mechanism is currently very limited.

It’s important to talk to your provider about any potential reactions or side effects before starting a new CAM therapy. This can help you to be aware of and prepare for the symptoms of a healing crisis, should they occur.