Alternative medicine, also described as complementary medicine, may seem trendy or hip to many of us, but it is, in fact, rooted in ancient beliefs and healing practices. These “early” systems of care looked at the body and mind as a connected system.
When “modern” medicine became popular in eighteenth century America, however, a line was clearly drawn, separating the body (attended to by doctors) from the mind (attended to by clergy). As a result, while systems such as acupuncture from China, Ayurvedic medicine from India, and even Native American folk medicine relieved the suffering of millions of people over thousands of years, Westerners have only recently begun to embrace the wisdom handed down to us by our remote ancestors.
Jim, an engineer who commuted nearly an hour by car every day from his home in suburban Boston to his job in the city, embodies the “disconnect” between standard medical care and the possibilities beyond it. Jim was happy with his job, happy with his family, but he dreaded his daily commute. Each morning, as the time to leave for work approached, Jim experienced severe stomachaches. Before he left to go home in the evening, the same thing happened.
Jim saw his primary care doctor as well as a stomach specialist, but nothing seemed to help. One friend recommended acupuncture, another suggested homeopathy, Jim’s officemate said he should try biofeedback and see a chiropractor. Everyone told him he should learn how to “just relax.” Ultimately, Jim was more confused than ever, and as a solution eluded him, he lapsed into a mild depression.
Unfortunately, this story is familiar to many people. When standard medical procedures and medications do not succeed in reducing or eliminating symptoms, where can you turn? Once it becomes clear that there are many treatment “alternatives,” how do you evaluate your options and make a choice that is right for you? And what exactly is “alternative medicine” anyway?
What Is Alternative Medicine, and How Does It Differ from Complementary Medicine?
In a nutshell, alternative medicine can be described as a range of treatment approaches and healthcare practices that are not generally taught in medical schools or available in hospitals and are also not generally covered by insurance plans. Some of these practices are familiar to most people (for example, acupuncture, chiropractics, and the use of herbal supplements), while others are less widely known (for example, Ayurvedic medicine, naturopathy, and qi gong).
These and many other approaches are referred to as “alternative” when they are used instead of standard medical interventions. When used together with standard medical interventions, the same approaches are often considered complementary, because they are used to “complement” a medical doctor’s recommendations. The list of interventions considered complementary and alternative is constantly changing as new approaches are proven safe and effective and as they are accepted into “mainstream” healthcare practices.
If Jim decided to stop seeing his doctor and designed a treatment plan that included acupuncture, herbs, and yoga, his approach would be described as alternative. However, if Jim’s doctor continued to treat him while supporting his use of acupuncture, herbs, and yoga, this combination approach would be considered complementary, including elements of Eastern and Western medicine.
Five Domains of Alternative Medicine
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are five major “domains” of complementary and alternative medicine:
- Alternative medical systems (these include acupuncture and acupressure);
- Mind/body interventions (meditation and hypnosis would be examples of such interventions);
- Biologically-based treatments (like herbal therapy);
- Manipulative and body-based methods (chiropractics and massage are familiar to many); and
- Energy therapies (including Reiki and therapeutic touch).
Alternative and complementary medicine are used to treat a wide variety of illnesses and symptoms, ranging from ailments, such as Jim’s stomach problems, to cancer, infertility, chronic pain, insomnia, and heart disease. Many of these interventions also have a positive impact on emotional and psychological symptoms that are often associated with illness, like anxiety and depression. Simply put, as our bodies heal and begin to feel better, so too do our minds (and vice versa).
While there is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to how one approaches alternative and complementary therapies, it is best to seek the advice of experts. If your primary care doctor is unfamiliar with, or resistant to, discussing options outside of his or her field, there are many other sources of help.
Yet, as consumers such as Jim educate themselves on the newest and most ancient treatments, doctors who practice conventional Western medicine in fact, the entire healthcare team must learn more about complementary and alternative procedures and support those for whom they provide care as they journey from illness to health and continuing wellness. Ultimately, these educated consumers of health services will benefit the most, as they are able to communicate their needs, access treatment alternatives, and look forward to greater involvement in and understanding of both their health and their health options.
The National Institutes of Health, National Centers for Complementary and Alternative Medicine provides basic definitions as well as detailed descriptions of complementary and alternative interventions and serves as a clearinghouse for fact sheets, information packages, and publications.
Onhealth.com is an alternative health Web site developed in association with WebMD.
The Alternative Medicine Review is a journal with articles for both professionals and the general public.
Alternative Medicine News Online is a comprehensive Web site with links to several related sites.