Alternative Medicine Expands Treatment Options
If you mentioned the term alternative medicine 10 or 20 years ago, most would assume that only people who fell outside the mainstream practiced this form of healing. But today, complementary, integrative, and alternative medicine are now often included by physicians and hospitals such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Johns Hopkins, and Cleveland Clinic as part of a more holistic approach to patient care.
Many of alternative medicine's proponents, like Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Andrew Weil, are well known and often featured in the popular media. In fact, even the National Institutes of Health has become involved with alternative medicine, creating the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in 1998 to explore these forms of treatment from a rigorous scientific perspective and encourage the incorporation of proven alternative medicine practices into conventional medicine.
What is alternative medicine?
Alternative medicine covers an incredibly wide scope of treatments and healing systems, some familiar, like acupuncture and homeopathic medicine, and others less well known, like biofield therapies and the Indian medical system known as Ayurveda.
In general, the term alternative medicine refers to using non-conventional approaches to health care in place of traditional Western medicine. Complementary medicine describes combining alternative medicine with conventional medicine, for example using acupuncture to treat the nausea a cancer patient experiences as a result of chemotherapy. Integrative medicine, according to NCCAM, combines mainstream and alternative medicine treatments for which there is scientific evidence of effectiveness and safety. Others define integrative medicine somewhat differently, believing it's centered on a combination of treatment approaches that address not only physical well being, but also the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of health and disease.
There are five widely accepted ways of classifying alternative and complementary medicine:
- Alternative medical systems which include approaches to medicine that have often developed outside the confines of Western medical practice like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda or others that developed within Western cultures but don't follow the dictates of traditional Western medicine like homeopathy or naturopathy
- Mind-body medicine which focuses on using the power of the mind to improve health, for example meditation, prayer, and art, music, or dance therapy
- Biologically based therapies that use herbs, foods, and vitamins to treat illnesses
- Manipulative methods like chiropractic and osteopathic care and massage which seek to heal through movement of different parts of the body
- Energy therapies, including biofield therapies like Reiki which affect energy fields that some believe surround the body and bioelectromagnetic-based therapies which use electromagnetism to treat disease
How common is the use of alternative medicine in the U.S.?
A comprehensive survey on the use of alternative medicine in America was released by NCCAM in 2004. The results demonstrate that alternative medicine has moved firmly into the mainstream.
Nearly 75% of the more than 30,000 people surveyed reported they had used some form of complementary or alternative medicine sometime during their lives, while more than 62% said they had used it in the past 12 months. When prayer and megavitamin therapy are removed from the mix, 36% of those questioned had used a form of alternative medicine during the last year.
Women choose complementary and alternative medicine more often than men, as do those with higher levels of education and people who have been in the hospital in the past year. The most common conditions that lead people to try complementary or alternative medicine are chronic back, joint, neck, and head pain. Other conditions mentioned include colds, anxiety and depression, stomach problems, and insomnia.
Asked why they turned to alternative medicine, 55% of those surveyed believed it would improve their health when it was combined with conventional medicine. Other surveys put U.S. spending on alternative medicine at $36 to $47 billion in 1997, the most recent year for which the information is available.
Natural does not necessarily mean safe:
How to discern what works and what is safe
While combining alternative medicine with traditional treatments can yield improved health, many people make the mistake of assuming that "natural" treatments are always safe and don't need special scrutiny. That misjudgment can be dangerous or even fatal.
A recent Canadian study by Dr. Beth Abramson found that 45% of the cardiology patients she interviewed were using complementary and alternative medicine, but just over half said their cardiologist was aware of this. A number of vitamins and herbal supplements can have serious contraindications for patients taking any number of cardiovascular medications. Hawthorne berries, for example, taken to lower blood pressure can be dangerous in combination with other medications and vitamin E can cause patients taking blood thinners like Coumadin to suffer brain hemorrhages.
It is essential for you to tell all your doctors about every treatment, vitamin, and supplement you use. It's also vital that you choose alternative medicine providers with proper credentials, training, and experience and treatments that have been studied scientifically and been shown to be both safe and effective.
Expert guidance is also valuable when assessing alternative medicine treatments. PinnacleCare offers its members access to well-respected alternative medicine practitioners like Evan Ross, L.Ac., DOM., a board certified, licensed acupuncturist, Doctor of Oriental Medicine, and member of PinnacleCare's Medical Advisory Board. In addition, PinnacleCare's health care advocates develop for each member a comprehensive, complete health history which is made available to every medical practitioner who treats the member. That both helps the member receive strategically crafted, holistic care as well as avoiding dangerous drug and alternative medicine interactions.
"In my practice, I've found that regular and consistent complementary treatments help people do better," said Ross. "They will tolerate their conventional treatments and have a better quality of life."