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  • Writer's picturevanessa

What is Alternative Medicine?

"The Doctor of the future will give no medicine; but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease." -Thomas A Edison

This is a quote by Thomas Edison from 1902. I suggest to you that the future that Thomas Edison spoke of over a century ago is today, right now. What Thomas Edison described is exactly what alternative health modalities espouse - using diet, lifestyle and natural therapies to prevent disease and uproot the true cause of illness.

So what is alternative medicine?

According to Merriam-Webster, alternative medicine is “any of various systems of healing or treating disease (as chiropractic, homeopathy, or faith healing) not included in the traditional medical curricula of the United States and Britain”. This type of definition has two inherent problems:

#1 - It is very vague.

#2 - This definition highlights the inconsistencies of how the various types of medicine are viewed differently throughout the world. For example, chiropractic medicine – a form of diagnosis and treatment which involves musculoskeletal manipulation – is still primarily classified as alternative in the US, but not in other countries like Denmark or South Africa.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines CAM as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine” (NCCAM, 2002).

This tells us what alternative medicine is not, but not what it is.

I feel it is critical to get a better understanding of what alternative medicine actually is, seeing that surveys show that 42 percent of people in the United States report that they have used at least one CAM therapy. Speaking of CAM, here we have another mystery, what is the difference between Complementary, Alternative (and now) Integrative Medicine?

Commonly accepted definition of these various types of health care are as follows:

Complementary Medicine is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are used in conjunction with conventional medical treatments.

Alternative Medicine is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products used in place of conventional medicine.

Integrative or Integrated Medicine is relationship-based care that combines mainstream and complementary therapies.

Conventional Medicine (also called Western or Allopathic Medicine) is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degrees.

To help us understand what alternative medicine actually is, however, we can look to one of the most widely used classification structures of alternative medicine, developed by NCCAM (2000), divides CAM modalities into five categories:

  1. Alternative medical systems

  2. Mind-body interventions

  3. Biologically based treatments

  4. Manipulative and body-based methods

  5. Energy therapies.

Let’s take a closer look at these categories.

Alternative medical systems

These are natural health modalities that are complete medical systems in and of themselves. They include such modalities as:

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM)

  • Ayurvedic Medicine

  • Homeopathy

  • Naturopathy

Mind-Body Interventions–

These are therapies that focus on the connection and relationship of the mind, body and behavior and their effect on well-being and health. They include modalities such as:

  • Meditation

  • Prayer

  • Hypnotherapy

  • Any form of Mental Healing

Biologically Based Treatments –

These are therapies that focus on using naturally occurring substances to prevent and treat illness and promote health and wellness. They include:

  • Specialized diets

  • Herbal Remedies

  • Other natural products

  • Minerals

  • Hormones

  • Biologicals

Manipulative and body-based methods –

These natural health modalities focus on the structures and systems of the body, such as the bones, joints, tissues, and the circulatory and lymphatic systems. they treat various conditions through bodily manipulation. Therapies included in this category include:

  • Chiropractic

  • Osteopathy

  • Massage therapy

  • Reflexology

Energy therapies –

Therapies included in this category are those that focus on manipulating the bioengergetic fields of the body or applying energetic fields to the body to promote health, balance and relaxation and include:

  • Qi gong

  • Reiki

  • Energy Medicine

  • Therapeutic touch

Why Alternative Medicine?

Now that we have a better idea of what alternative medicine is, the next question is ...why would I want to use it? Why is it becoming so popular?

I feel that there are several main reasons alternative medicine has become so popular in this country.

  • Disillusioned Patients - People are becoming disillusioned with conventional medicine. Conventional medicine is a relatively young system of medicine compared to more traditional systems of medicine throughout the world, and it is still experiencing growing pains. At this point, there are over 20,000 deaths annually in the US from prescription drugs, we are experiencing an explosion in chronic illnesses, and it has become devastatingly clear that conventional medicine is not designed to deal with this.

  • Holistic Care - Most, if not all, of the natural therapies categorized under alternative medicine focus on a holistic view of the body, recognizing that all parts and systems of the body are connected and must be addressed to create and maintain wellness. This is one of the biggest shortcomings of conventional medicine.

  • Finding the Root Cause - Alongside its holistic focus, finding the root cause of illness, instead of just treating its symptoms, is a foundational principle for most of these natural therapies.

  • The Rest of the World Uses it Successfully - and has for generations - even thousands of years. For example, many European countries have historically used various forms of traditional medicine such as herbal medicine and homeopathy for many hundreds of years. TCM and Ayurveda have been practiced and documented with several thousand years of successful emperical evidence.

Now that we have a broad understanding of alternative medicine and what it has to offer, I'd like to explore some of these specific natural modalities in more detail. In future articles, I will offer overviews of several of these therapies.

For now, I'd love to know if you have used alternative medicine for yourself or your family? What were your thoughts and experiences? Let me know in the comments!

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