Alternative Medicine


Throughout recorded history, people of various cultures have relied on what
Western medical practitioners today call alternative medicine. The term
alternative medicine covers a broad range of healing philosophies,
approaches, and therapies. It generally describes those treatments and
health care practices that are outside mainstream Western health care.
People use these treatments and therapies in a variety of ways. Alternative
therapies used alone are often referred to as alternative; when used in
combination with other alternative therapies, or in addition to conventional
therapies they are referred to as complementary. Some therapies are far
outside the realm of accepted Western medical theory and practice, but some,
like chiropractic treatments, are now established in mainstream medicine.

Worldwide, only an estimated ten to thirty percent of human health care is
delivered by conventional, biomedically oriented practitioners ("Fields of
Practice"). The remaining seventy to ninety percent ranges from self-care
according to folk principles, to care given in an organized health care
system based on alternative therapies ("Fields of Practice"). Many cultures
have folk medicine traditions that include the use of plants and plant
products. In ancient cultures, people methodically collected information on
herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into
the twentieth century much of the pharmacology of scientific medicine was
derived from the herbal lore of native peoples. Many drugs commonly used
today are of herbal origin: one-quarter of the prescription drugs dispensed
by community pharmacies in the United States contain at least one active
ingredient derived from plant material ("Fields of Practice").

Twenty years ago, few physicians would have advised patients to take folic
acid to prevent birth defects, vitamin E to promote a healthy heart, or
vitamin C to bolster their immune systems. Yet today, doctor and patient
alike know of the lifesaving benefits of these vitamins. Twenty years ago,
acupuncture, guided imagery, and therapeutic touch were considered outright
quackery. Now, however, in clinics and hospitals around the country,
non-traditional therapies are gaining wider acceptance as testimonials and
studies report success using them to treat such chronic maladies as back
pain and arthritis.

The number of people availing themselves of these alternative therapies is
staggering. In 1991 about twenty-one million Americans made four hundred and
twenty-five million visits to practitioners of these types of alternative
medicine; more than the estimated three hundred and eighty-eight million
visits made to general practitioners that year (Apostolides). The U.S.
Department of Education has accredited more than twenty acupuncture schools
and more than thirty medical schools now offer courses in acupuncture
(Lombardo; Smith). As the number of Western medical institutions researching
alternative therapies increases, the legitimacy of at least some alternative
therapies will also increase.

Does all this recent medical establishment attention mean that the
non-conventional therapies really work? Critics say a definitive scientific
answer must await well-designed experiments involving many patients. Up to
now, most of the studies have relied on personal observation and anecdotal
testimony from satisfied patients. The official position of the American
Medical Association (A.M.A.)--alternative medicine's chief critic--is that a
patient's improvement or recovery after alternative treatment might just as
well be incidental to the action taken. This may be true for scientists and
researchers, but the fact is that the people seeking alternative treatments
disagree. The solution is obvious: more research needs to be conducted.

Some alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, have
impressive histories dating back thousands of years. In America,
professional and public interest in the field of alternative care has grown
to such an extent that, in 1992, the U.S. government established the Office
of Alternative Medicine (OAM) within the National Institutes of Health
(NIH). Its mission is to speed the discovery, development, and validation of
potential treatments to complement our current healthcare system. One of the
OAM's first tasks was to develop a classification system for the dozens of
various therapies and practices. The systems of alternative medical practice
the OAM has classified so far share many common therapeutic techniques.
Traditional oriental medicine and naturopathic medicine, for example, both
use herbal remedies, acupuncture, and mind/body control. However, some
alternative systems, such as environmental medicine and homeopathic medicine
are distinct and separate. Following are some the more popular alternative
therapies Americans use.


Acupuncture is an example of a therapy once considered bizarre which has
some scientific basis. An integral part of Chinese medicine for thousands of
years, it is based on the belief that energy, which the Chinese call Qi
(pronounced 'chee'), circulates along meridians in the body in the same way
that blood flows (Furman). A diagram of the meridian system looks similar to
those of our circulatory and nervous systems (Crute). When the flow of
energy becomes blocked, an imbalance is created, resulting in pain or
disease. To restore the proper balance and energy flow, acupuncturists
stimulate specific points of the body along these meridians. Puncturing the
skin with a needle is the usual method, but acupuncturists may also
stimulate the acupuncture points with finger-pressure.

Although Western physicians and researchers do not truly understand the
concept of Qi, there is evidence that acupuncture can influence the movement
or release of many chemicals in the body. Research conducted by Dr. Bruce
Pomeranz, a neurophysiologist at the University of Toronto, established that
acupuncture releases naturally produced, morphine-like substances called
endorphins (Crute).

In addition to releasing endorphins, doctors and clinicians know that
acupuncture can provide at least short-term relief for a wide range of pains
by inhibiting the transmission of pain impulses through the nerves.
Furthermore, recent studies also show acupuncture to be effective in
alleviating bronchial asthma, bronchitis, and stroke-induced paralysis
(Apostolides). "I'm a healthy skeptic," says Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Mary
McCaul (Apostolides). "But look, we don't have all the answers. Patients who
choose acupuncture feel calmer. Even if it's a placebo effect, placebos are
powerful things."

Mind-Body Healing

Relaxation techniques like meditation and biofeedback--which teach patients
to control heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and other involuntary
functions through concentration--have also given respectability to
alternative medicine and are routinely taught to patients and medical
students. The basic premise of mind-body medicine is that the power of the
mind can be used to help heal the body by improving the person's attitude
and also, as recent research has shown, by direct effects on the immune,
endocrine, and nervous systems (Epiro and Walsh). Although many of the
biochemical and physiological mechanisms remain to be identified, an
increasing body of evidence is showing that the healthy mind is indeed
capable of mobilizing the immune system-and that the troubled mind can
dampen the functioning of the immune system and contribute to physical
There is little doubt that state of mind and physiological processes are
closely linked. The connection between stress and immune system response,
for example, is well documented (Epiro and Walsh). Some scientists suggest
that the power of prayer and faith healing, like some forms of meditation,
might also be physiological in that they may protect the body from the
negative effects of stress hormone norepinephrine. In addition, experience
shows that relaxation techniques can help patients enormously. "Medicine is
a three-legged stool," says Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School
(Epiro and Walsh). "One leg is pharmaceuticals, the other is surgery, and
the third is what people can do for themselves. Mind-body work is an
essential part of that."
In addition to preventing or curing illnesses, these therapies provide
people the chance to be involved in their own care, to make vital decisions
about their own health, to be touched emotionally, and to be changed
psychologically in the process. Many patients today believe their doctor or
medical system is too technical, impersonal, remote, and uncaring. The
mind-body approach is potentially a corrective to this tendency, a reminder
of the importance of human connection that opens up the power of patients
acting on their own behalf.


Homeopathy, despite the American Medical Association's characterization of
it as a pseudo science, is a popular alternative that is drawing increased
attention. Founded in the eighteenth century by German physician Samuel
Hahnemann, it is based on the idea that "like cures like" (Kees); that
micro-doses of substances, known in large amounts to cause illness, can
treat that illness by stimulating the body's own natural defenses and
curative powers. In some respects, treatment with homeopathic medicines,
nontoxic compounds derived from plants, animals and minerals, is akin to
immunization or allergy treatments in which similar substances are
introduced into the body to bolster immunity.

A substantial number of American doctors--among them Wayne Jonas, a family
practitioner who is director of the National Institutes of Health's Office
of Alternative Medicine--have been trained in homeopathy, as have countless
nurses, veterinarians, chiropractors. While critics contend that homeopathic
remedies are no better than water at worst and placebos at best, a survey of
studies published in the British Medical Journal a few years ago indicates
that some are actually more effective than placebos, and a number of reports
document their efficacy in treating hay fever, respiratory infections,
digestive diseases, migraine and a form of rheumatic disease. "I do what
works best for my patients," says Dr. Jennifer Jacobs of Edmonds,
Washington, a family practitioner and member of the NIH 
Alternative Medicine

Advisory Committee (Squires). "There are certainly situations where modern medicine is appropriate and lifesaving, but perhaps the pendulum has swung too far toward technology and standard pharmaceuticals and not enough toward some of the early healing methods that have a track record in many cultures." Chiropractic Treatment Chiropractic science is concerned with investigating the relationship between the human body's structure (primarily of the spine) and function (primarily of the nervous system) to restore and preserve health. Chiropractic medicine applies such knowledge to diagnosing and treating structural dysfunctions that can affect the nervous system. Chiropractic physicians use manual procedures and interventions, not surgical or chemotherapeutic ones. In 1993, more than 45,000 licensed chiropractors were practicing in the United States (Krizmanic). Chiropractic specialty areas are pertinent to other medical specialties, such as radiology, orthopedics, neurology, and sports medicine. Current chiropractic research focuses on back and musculoskeletal pain and reliability studies. Although chiropractic clearly has its drawbacks, notably its stubborn insistence that spinal misalignments cause or underlie most ailments, including those far afield from the backbone, its use of vertebral manipulation has proved useful in treating acute low-back pain and other muscular and neurological problems. Osteopaths, licensed physicians whose education is essentially the same as that of M.D.s, also include manipulative therapy in their treatments. Studies at the University of Miami's School of Medicine Touch Research Institute have found that premature infants gain weight much faster after being massaged than babies in an unmassaged control group (Cooper and Stoflet). Massaged infants cry less and are calmer than those who are only rocked. It is surprising that only now, in the late 1990's, are we discovering the fact that not only infants but also children and adults respond favorably to the human touch--both emotionally and physically. Conclusion Many Americans flock to alternative practices either because their suffering has not been alleviated by standard medical or surgical treatment, or because the traditional treatments themselves are too expensive or dangerous. These patients often feel that the intrusion of increasingly complicated and impersonal technology has widened the gap between mainstream caregivers and patients. Too many doctors are thought to be coolly professional and emotionally distant, inclined to cure a specific disorder narrow-mindedly without comforting or caring for the patient. Americans have made it clear with their pocketbooks that they find this unacceptable. Thomas Roselle, a licensed chiropractor and acupuncturist who runs an alternative-care practice in Falls Church, Va., states, "Traditional medicine shines in crisis intervention, but where it fails at times is in day-to-day-care. We see a lot of different things where traditional medicine has failed to do anything about it. Too often the question of why the body is broken down isn't asked" (Lombardo). Of course, acceptance of alternative medicine by the medical establishment will not occur until research has proven its efficacy. However, with so many Americans already using alternative treatments, doctors need to better understand the principles of alternative medicine. It is incumbent upon doctors not only to know what medical treatments their patients are using, but what effect those treatments are having. Only then can doctors provide effective and safe health care. Works Cited Apostolides, Marianne. "How to Quit the Holistic Way." Psychology Today Sept./Oct. 1996: 34-46. Cooper, Richard and Sandi Stoflet. "Trends in the Education and Practice of Alternative Medicine." Health Affairs Fall 1996: 226-237. Crute, Sheree. "The Acupuncture Alternative." Heart & Soul Oct./Nov. 1996: 90-91. Epiro, E. and Nancy Walsh. "Alternative Medicine--Part Two: Mind Body Medicine--Expanding Health Model." Patient Care 15 Sept. 1997: 127-145. "Fields of Practice-Herbal Medicine." . (10 Dec. 1997). Furman, Bertram. "Trendy Traditional Medicine for a Modern Age." San Diego Business Journal 10 Mar. 1997: A7-8. Kees, Michael. "Alternative Medicine: Down the Slippery Slope." Modern Medicine 1 Jan. 1997: 68-70. Krizmanic, Judy. "The Best of Both Worlds." Vegetarian Times Nov. 1995: 96-101. Lombardo, John. "Alternative Medicine Gains Credibility with Some Doctors." St. Louis Business Journal 30 June 1997: 16B. Smith, Brad. "Alternative Treatments Gain Acceptance." Denver Business Journal 18 July 1997: 2B-4B. Squires, Sally. "The New Medicine." Modern Maturity Sept. 1996: 69-70. 

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