You will probably have a general idea of how modern medicine works: people get an annual medical check-up, take medicine when they are sick, carry a plaster if they break a bone and then recover.
But in recent years, interest in trying other therapeutic approaches has greatly increased. Many of these "alternative" techniques come from different parts of the world and have been used for thousands of years. So what is alternative medicine and what does it do?
What is it?
The term "alternative medicine" is used to describe therapeutics that are not included in the learning of conventional medicine, such as acupuncture, therapeutic massage, and medicinal plants. People often consider these types of therapies as alien to established medicine, which is why they are called "alternatives."
The eastern countries have a long tradition of teaching these alternative medicines. But until recently, most Western hospitals did not provide any alternative treatment and Western medical schools did not teach them.
Patients in Western countries are becoming more receptive about trying alternative medicines and have begun looking for them. As a consequence, many Western medical schools are beginning to teach these medical techniques and theories. Some hospitals and doctors are beginning to complement their usual medical practice with alternative techniques.
Many patients and medical professionals use alternative treatments along with conventional therapies. This is known as complementary medicine.
Both alternative and complementary medicine use the same types of remedies to treat a health problem. The difference is that alternative medicine is often applied instead of conventional medical techniques. Complementary medicine is used in addition to conventional medicine, it does not replace it. The set of alternative and complementary medicine is known as CAM, for its acronym in English (complementary and alternative medicine).
How is CAM different from conventional medicine?
Conventional medicine is based on the body's scientific knowledge and uses treatments that have been proven scientifically effective. Doctors acquire in their training a thorough knowledge of the organism, diseases, and their treatments.
Complementary and alternative medicine is based on the idea that a health professional should treat the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. The techniques used in CAM are much less invasive than conventional medical practices; this means that they are not based on surgery or usual drugs.
Some CAM therapies are based on scientific data. But in most cases, there are still areas that need to be investigated. This does not mean that these therapies do not work, but simply that experts have not studied them enough to know for sure that they work and how they do it.
Why do people use CAM?
People often turn to CAM when they have a chronic problem that conventional medicine has failed to cure completely. For example, someone who has been treated by a doctor for years for a persistent headache may also resort to CAM to treat some symptoms or the side effects of conventional treatments.
People can also use complementary and alternative medicine when they are not sick. As many people believe that CAM techniques - such as yoga - can improve their overall well-being, healthy people often use alternative medicine to prevent disease and have a healthier lifestyle.
Just as there are many fields in conventional medicine, CAM includes many different practices. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) of the United States, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), groups the CAM techniques in four areas:
- The practices that have a biological basis involve supplementing the normal diet of a person with nutrients, herbs, extracts, and certain foods. If you have ever taken supplements with vitamins or medicinal plants, you have resorted to a biologically based technique.
- The manipulative therapies and body-based focus on systems and structures of the body. If you have ever visited a chiropractor or received a message, you have followed a manipulation treatment.
- The interventions for the mind and body using the connection between mind, body and spirit to create greater general well - being. Techniques that act on the mind and body include meditation, yoga, and biofeedback or biofeedback.
- The energy therapies intended to restore the imbalances that occur in the body’s natural energy. They include techniques such as Physicist Kari Nokela's views over CAM.
In addition to these four different types of practices, CAM includes several complete medicine systems. These alternative medicine systems are complete systems of theory and practice, and many originated in times prior to conventional medicine that we use in the West today. Some examples of alternative medical systems include traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
Although it has been shown that CAM is useful, like anything else, it has its limitations.
Experts have not sufficiently researched many CAM techniques to claim that they are effective as treatments. Some people may feel that it is not worth investing much time and money in treatments whose effectiveness has not been proven. Medical insurance policies rarely cover CAM treatments, so patients must pay them out of pocket without any reimbursement.
For some health problems, alternative medicine approaches alone are not enough to help a person heal. Even something seemingly mild as an infection may require traditional medications, such as antibiotics. Therefore, it is always better to go to your doctor if you have a health problem and talk openly about any alternative technique you would like to try.
Another reason why you should be honest with your doctor about CAM techniques is that, in some cases, CAM practices can interfere with traditional medical treatments. For example, certain herbal supplements may interfere with some medications, such as those used in the treatment of diabetes or contraceptives.
As with modern medicine, CAM treatments that are effective for a problem may not help with all problems. Some treatments are used only for certain problems, so if you want to try an alternative technique for a health problem, make sure it can help you with the specific problem you are looking for.
Before trying it
Traditional medicine doctors not only have adequate training but also have an official license to practice their profession. But this is not always the case with CAM therapists. In the United States, in some states, they have licensing requirements for certain specialists, such as acupuncturists and therapeutic massage practitioners, and many are increasing their licensing requirements as the popularity of CAM techniques increases.
Finding a good CAM therapist is still not as easy as looking for someone in the phone book. The NCCAM advises that another health professional be asked to recommend someone, to obtain information about the therapist they plan to go to (for example, regarding their training and license) and to meet with the therapist to ask about the risks and benefits of treatment; the same things I would do if I went to see a new doctor.
You may have already resorted to complementary or alternative medicine, such as yoga or massage, without even knowing it! Trying practices such as meditation and breathing cannot do any harm, but other CAM techniques can have certain consequences on people with certain health problems. Even more widespread practices, such as yoga, can hurt someone who has a health problem - such as a back problem - if they don't do the exercises correctly. So before trying any CAM technique, discuss it with your doctor. Your doctor will try to guide you on the practices that you can safely test while maintaining your current treatment.