Long delegated to a bizarre sector of unconventional American medicine, alternative medicine has often been cast-off as something that’s too practical to efficiently alleviate health concerns. However, that mindset has been reversed, leading to the uncovering of a form of medicine that actually has significant value. Complementary and alternative medicine has proven a constructive and worthwhile tool to help combat the pressing health matters of today.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine defines this form of medicine as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional or western medicine.” Specifically, complementary medicine is used in combination with traditional medical treatments and procedures, whereas alternative medicine is used without conventional medicine. Examples of complementary and alternative practices include tai chi, acupuncture, botanical and nutritional medicine, massage therapy and joint manipulation, music therapy, and homeopathy.
What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has categorized complementary and alternative medicine into five main groups (although these classes can overlap):
1. Biologically Based Practices (Example: Vitamin Supplements)
This includes mineral and vitamin supplements, nature-derived products like chondroitin sulfate (which comes from cow and shark cartilage), botanical medicine, and diet-based practices (like the low-carb Atkins diet and fermented or functional foods). Probiotics, which are live organisms like the bacteria found in human bodies or certain foods, may be consumed as part of an alternative approach.
2. Manipulative and Body Based Approaches (Example: Massage)
This approach often refers to treatments involving vertebrae and spinal nerve roots and the functions of the skeletal system. Massage, as well as chiropractic and osteopathic medicine, is used to relieve the body of pressure and pain, thus optimizing the body’s ability to react to internal disruptions.
3. Mind-Body Medicine (Example: Meditation)
Contrary to the previous approach, mind-body medicine follows the belief that the mind can influence the wellbeing of the rest of the body. Spiritual, meditative, and relaxation techniques are utilized to create a sense of unity between bodily systems. Yoga, dance therapy, meditation, and art therapy are just a few examples.
4. Alternative Medical Systems (Example: Acupuncture)
This approach relies on “the balance and flow of vital energies through the body.” This form of medicine borrows from ancient Asian methods of energy targeting, such as acupuncture, where needles are placed on energy-critical points on the body.
5. Energy Medicine (Example: Reiki Therapy)
Similar to the preceding method, the energy approach focuses on bio-electromagnetic techniques and related forms that place importance on the relationship between therapy and energy. A rather arcane example of this is Reiki therapy, which “aims to realign and strengthen healthful energies through the intervention of energies radiating from the hands of a master healer.” The Alexander Technique, which involves the psychological benefits of touch therapy, is another example.
What Are the Benefits of CAM?
The benefits associated with complementary and alternative medicine are broad, but three basic advantages exist:
First and foremost, they’re relatively inexpensive. This is particularly noticeable when comparing the costs of pharmaceuticals and botanical remedies. When a $10 herbal alternative exists to the $80 sleeping pills recommended by your doctor, it’s tempting to go for the cheaper option…and many people share that mindset.
2. Fewer Side Effects
Ever seen those commercials for medicines where the spokesperson quickly states all of the side effects of consumption? Well, if you don’t want to experience nausea, vomiting, heart failure, liver failure, or death, then complementary or alternative medicine might be for you. Generally, these medical practices involve low-risk or holistic approaches. Meditation, for example, won’t cause liver failure, and acupuncture (as scary as needles can be) isn’t likely to cause a heart attack.
Often times, complementary and alternative practices may lead to lifestyle changes that can positively impact the lives of participants. For example, if an individual begins to practice yoga as a way of combatting heart disease, he or she may develop a habit of this exercise and reap benefits that were never intended. In addition, pharmaceuticals often serve as the bandage on a wound that needs to be stitched – it may stop the bleeding, but it won’t get to the root or cause of the bleeding. CAM can combat the fundamental cause of a disease in ways that the exclusive consumption of pills may not.
When Should You Choose Complementary and Alternative Medicine?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, most individuals use CAM for the following injuries/ailments:
1. Back, Neck, or Joint Pain
A manipulative and body-based approach to CAM is often utilized when individuals are experiencing some type of musculoskeletal discomfort. Massage is a great way to relieve skeletal pain that may be caused by work-related injuries, sports, or freak-accidents.
Pills aren’t the only way to reduce anxiety; meditation and other alternative measures can reduce stress and anxiety, as well. Meditation isn’t expensive and doesn’t require any equipment, so it’s pretty easy for anyone to engage in this mind-body exercise.
Complementary and alternative medicine can help reduce arthritis, which is one of the leading causes of disability among adults. Chiropractic medicine can reduce the discomfort associated with arthritis, both for older and younger individuals, and it’s proven to be a popular tool for those who suffer from arthritis.
In addition, CAM can be used to lower cholesterol levels, reduce instances of insomnia and migraines, and other musculoskeletal conditions.
Complementary and alternative medicine is often cheaper, has fewer negative health ramifications, and can be more effective than traditional medicine when treating certain conditions. If you’re in an emergency situation – excessive bleeding, broken bone, heart palpitations – get to an emergency room for some conventional treatments as soon as possible. But for conditions that develop over time as a result of things like stress, poor diet, exercise, or smoking, complementary and alternative medicine may be a safer, cheaper, and more effective treatment for you.
This article was reviewed and approved by Dr. Jamie Corroon.
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