There are many different types of medicine available to consumers, giving you plenty of agency to choose treatments. The types of services that typically fall under the umbrella of Western medicine tend to include what you’d normally think of — medications, surgery, and many of the services provided by doctors. That said, you may be interested in what is, sometimes, called complementary or alternative medicine. Let’s learn more about this wide range of services.
Complementary and alternative medicine (or “CAM”) is both easy and difficult to fully define because of how varied the services are. Generally, we can define alternative medicine as “practices used in place of conventional medical treatments.” They may be used alongside conventional medicine (complementary) or instead of it (alternative). Additionally, they tend to utilize methods that are either not fully backed by science or take a more indirect approach to health. In some cases, these services are referred to as holistic medicine, because they focus on treating the “whole person,” and not just the health problem. This also includes things like natural medicine and traditional Eastern medicine.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to break up the different alternative medicines into three categories — physical, nutrition, and lifestyle/spiritual. Since some alternative medicines have effectiveness or safety concerns, we’ll try to focus only one those that have some scientific backing and/or are safe. That said, if you’re thinking about trying out an alternative medicine, speak to your doctor first.
Of all the different types of alternative medicines, physical alternative medicines may have the most scientific backing, especially in specific conditions. In fact, we’ve discussed the benefits of the nearly all the treatments we’ll cover in this section.
Acupuncture is a method of treatment from traditional Chinese medicine that places thin needles at strategic points on your body. Traditionally, the needles were believed to balance the flow of life force (qi), while conventional medicine pinpoints their stimulation of nerves and muscles. Scientific studies have found enough benefits of acupuncture, for conditions from pain to addiction, that Medicare covers it.
Similarly to acupuncture, chiropractic services can be covered by Medicare because there is a sizable amount of research backing their benefit. Chiropractic medicine refers to the care and correction of the alignment of the spine and its effects on the rest of the body. Studies show that it can be effective at treating neck and lower back pain, as well as headaches.
Most of us have gotten a massage before and know how nice and relaxing it can feel. Massage is the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body (muscles, joints, skin, tendons) with varying degrees of pressure and techniques. While Medicare doesn’t cover massage therapy, it has been shown to relieve pain and stress and soothe sore muscles.
Together, yoga and tai chi are excellent low-impact exercises with numerous health benefits, which is why they can be considered CAM. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong also fall under the category of meditative movement practices, as they combine both physical benefits and meditative qualities.
The most simplistic way to explain the alternative medicine use of nutritional change is that our diets fuel our bodies. If we aren’t getting the right fuel, our bodies don’t run as well. Overtime, this can lead to chronic disease. This is pretty well established by science (just check out our Diet section!), and CAM practitioners may suggest one of these three methods to achieve balance in your diet.
If the modern diet allows for nutritional deficiencies, one method of making up the difference is supplementation. Dietary supplements are a bit of a tough subject for alternative medicine. In some cases, dietary supplements can help, but in others, they can be ineffective or even cause health issues. We suggest supplementation with your doctor’s guidance.
Instead of supplementation (or along with it), a doctor may suggest changes to your diet to promote good health. This is a more long-term solution than supplementation and is often used alongside conventional medicine. Let’s say your doctor tells you to lay off fatty foods because your blood pressure is up. That’s an example of using nutrition as a CAM. Similarly, if your doctor suggests eating more foods with omega-3 fatty acids, that would be an example of adding foods to your diet for health.
Herbs are plants or the leaves of plants that are used for their flavor, medicinal, or scent properties. There are many ways to use herbs, like taking supplements, drinking teas, adding them to your bathwater, or applying them to the skin through creams or oils. The therapeutic use of herbs is ancient, and can help you if used correctly. If you’re contemplating herbal medicine, consult your doctor as some popular herbs can be harmful, while others can interact poorly with certain medication.
Some of the more famous examples of CAM fall into the lifestyle or spiritual realm. While there isn’t as much evidence to back these up, some are surprisingly well-grounded in science.
One of these well-grounded examples is meditation, which we have written about before. Meditation can be incredibly healthy for you when used alongside conventional medicine. It’s a great example of how complementary or alternative medicine can work.
Sometimes called hypnotherapy, these services won’t make you cluck like a chicken or think you’re someone else. When done by a trained professional hypnosis can help with stress and some mental health conditions, chronic pain, and behavioral changes.
In a way, music, dance, or art therapy all speak to the therapeutic benefit of creativity and artistic endeavors, whether that’s painting, listening to or making music, or dancing. The benefits of these therapies are physical, emotional, and mental, making them effective for those who need them. Each has their own organizations (Music, Dance, and Art) to research and promote these therapies.
Biofeedback therapy is designed to help you gain some control over your involuntary functions, like your heartbeat or body temperature. In doing so, you can influence your body and relieve physical concerns. For example, a practitioner may teach you to change your brainwaves to lessen a headache. It may also be used to manage symptoms or chronic pain. These services should be done with the guidance of a trained professional.
Some therapies, like Reiki and healing touch, are less in the scientifically established realm. Healing touch therapy is a method of realigning a patient’s energy fields to stimulate healing. It is meant as a complementary healing therapy, not as a replacement for conventional medication. While there is limited evidence of the therapy’s effectiveness, it may help with stress and anxiety. Much like healing touch therapy, Reiki has the practitioner delivering life force energy (reiki) into the patient’s body and improving the energy flow through gentle touch. Similarly, Reiki has little evidence of clinical benefit, though it can aid in relaxation and stress relief.
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These are, by no means, the only complementary and alternative medicines available to the public. With that said, we suggest you take caution when trying out any alternative medicine. Some are entirely safe with reputable practitioners, but others can be unregulated and dangerous. Whatever your belief, you should work with your doctor to find the treatment that is best for you.