Complementary and Alternative Medicine: A Balanced View

The current healthcare dialog may have many of us thinking about what it really means to be “healthy”. For example, does “good health” mean making frequent visits to your doctor or taking medicine regularly? Perhaps your idea of being healthy is simply eating well and exercising every day. The truth is that there is no "one size fits all” solution. It’s true that we all share a similar biological make-up, but each of us has diverse needs and responds differently to treatment. With such a vast landscape of healthcare options available, it's difficult to know where to begin. While traditional medicine certainly has its place in modern day healthcare, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is gaining popularity. When combined with traditional practices, CAM is proving for many, to be just what the doctor ordered!

Although not taught in most conventional medical schools, what we consider to be CAM is quite common in other parts of the world and can be an effective addition to an overall treatment plan. For thousands of years, eastern practitioners employed CAM therapies to treat anything from back pain to depression or the common cold. As Americans embrace a more holistic mindset, we are seeing an increased interest in CAM. In fact, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Americans spent nearly 33.9 billion on CAM in 2007 alone. Below are some common treatments/therapies used throughout the world:

Massage therapy
Yoga, Qi-Gong
Hypnosis, guided imagery
Herbal, supplemental treatments

Let’s focus on some of the most popular treatments:

Massage therapy. With over 80 different types, massage therapy can be used for a variety of purposes including, but not limited to, pain relief and stress reduction. Massage uses therapeutic touch that includes pressing, rubbing or manipulating the muscles and other soft tissues of the body. This is done with varying technique and is individually tailored to address the needs of the recipient. Benefits of massage therapy can include:

  • Relaxation

  • Decreased anxiety

  • Decreased feelings of depression

  • Improved blood flow

  • Decreased fatigue

  • Increased body awareness

*The risks of massage therapy are minimal but it’s important to check with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about the process.

Acupuncture involves the use of very fine needles that are placed in specific areas of the body. The idea is that energy, called “qi” or “chi” flows through pathways called "meridians". The belief is that if the flow of qi is hindered in any way, the body will experience illness. The goal is to promote the free flow of qi throughout the body in order to alleviate blockage and allow the body to heal.

Like Acupuncture, Qi-gong promotes the increase of energy flow. It differs in that specific slow body movements, instead of needles, are used to increase the flow of qi. Qi-gong is thought to promote the natural healing process of the body and has often been used to detoxify and decrease anxiety and depression. Believed to build strength and lower Cortisol (stress hormone) levels, Qi-gong has been around for over 5000 years and is currently practiced by over 200 million people world wide.

*As with any exercise program, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting.

Energy body work such as Reiki involves the access of universal energy by the practitioner to support the patients own healing response. Essentially, the practitioner places their hands lightly on or just above the person receiving the treatment. The idea is to facilitate healing and promote relaxation. There are a number of reasons why people use Reiki including to reduce anxiety, chronic pain, recover from surgery and even compliment traditional cancer treatments. Younger than other CAM therapies, Reiki has been traced to Japan in the early 20th century.

*Risks to practicing Reiki are essentially non-existent but it’s important to speak with your doctor if you have any concerns.

We’ve touched briefly on just a few complementary and alternative medical treatments. It's important to discern which will be most beneficial to you. Start by speaking with your healthcare practitioner. Some mainstream providers are embracing CAM as an adjunct to traditional medicine and can likely point you in the right direction. You may even consider contacting an alternative practitioner such as a Naturopath, Homeopath or Herbalist. In addition, it’s helpful to ask yourself a few key questions:

  • What are your needs?

  • What is available in your area?

  • What fits into your budget?

  • What suits your schedule?

In many cases, a combination of both CAM and traditional therapies will be most beneficial. For example, you may work with an Acupuncturist to treat anxiety who might suggest that you incorporate massage and some basic lifestyle changes. At the same time, you may see your medical doctor to evaluate the need for medication. Keep in mind it’s not likely that any single CAM therapy will completely eliminate illness. Just like when seeing a doctor, you’ll probably need to commit to several visits and be willing to follow the recommendations of your practitioner.

Remember, the overall goal of CAM is the prevention of illness through balance of the mind, body and spirit. It engages the whole person and encourages the body to heal itself. Our bodies have an impressive ability to heal when the conditions are right. With time and commitment, CAM can offer us the added balance that we need!