Sunday, July 6, 2008

Complementary and alternative medicine: What is it?

Ranging from herbs to acupuncture, alternative medicine is becoming increasingly popular. Learn the basics.

When you were a child and sprained an ankle or came down with the flu, you probably visited a family doctor or a pediatrician to treat your problem. As an adult, you most likely visit your primary care physician for what ails you. But now your friends are suggesting alternative medicine treatments that you've never heard of — things like homeopathy, ayurveda, acupuncture and herbs.

What are these alternative medicine treatments? Are they safe? Will they work? Get the basics yourself before starting any alternative medicine therapy, and always tell your doctor which ones you're trying.

What is alternative medicine? What is complementary medicine?

Alternative medicine generally refers to practices not typically used in conventional medicine. What's considered alternative medicine changes constantly as more and more treatments undergo rigorous study and are proved to be effective or not.

  • Complementary medicine is thought of as treatments used in addition to the conventional therapies your doctor may prescribe, such as using tai chi or massage in addition to prescription medicine for anxiety.
  • Alternative medicine is generally thought of as being used instead of conventional methods. For example, this might mean seeing a homeopath or naturopath instead of your regular doctor.

Integrative medicine: Combining complementary treatments with conventional care

Conventional doctors are learning more about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) because they recognize that more than half of people try some kind of alternative treatment. Many health care institutions have begun integrating therapies that aren't part of mainstream medicine into their treatment programs. A number of medical schools now include education on nontraditional techniques in their curriculum. As complementary and alternative therapies prove effective, they're being combined more often with conventional care. This is known as integrative medicine. You're practicing integrative medicine when you choose to add a complementary treatment to an existing conventional treatment. For instance, you may decide to take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help keep your heart healthy in addition to statins your doctor prescribed to reduce your cholesterol. Remember, talk to your doctor before combining complementary and alternative treatments with conventional treatments to avoid possible problems.

What are the principles of complementary and alternative medicine?

Many alternative medicine practitioners base their work around a few common principles. Some of these are similar to what your conventional doctor might do, while others are quite different. Basic philosophies of complementary and alternative medicine include:

  • Prevention is key to good health. Taking steps to better your health before you get sick is the best way to keep yourself healthy.
  • Your body has the ability to heal itself. Alternative medicine practitioners see themselves as facilitators. To them, your body does the healing work, and treatment encourages your natural healing processes.
  • Learning and healing go hand in hand. Alternative medicine practitioners see themselves as teachers and mentors who offer guidance. To the practitioner, you're the one who does the healing.
  • Holistic care. The focus is on treating you as a whole person — recognizing that physical health, mental well-being, relationships and spiritual needs are interconnected and play a part in your overall health.

What are some examples of complementary and alternative medicine?

To make sense of the many therapies available, it might help to look at them in the broad categories that the National Institutes of Health uses for classification. Keep in mind that while these categories may be useful for understanding types of complementary and alternative medicine, the distinctions between therapies aren't clear-cut. Some treatment systems may use techniques from more than one category. For example, traditional Chinese medicine uses several types of complementary and alternative medicine. Some techniques may fit in more than one category. For example, acupressure could fit either in the category of manipulation and touch or in the category of energy therapies. Here are the broad categories of complementary and alternative medicine.

Healing systems
Healing systems are complete sets of theories and practices. A system isn't just a single practice or remedy — such as massage — but many different practices that all center on a philosophy or lifestyle, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in your body. Many healing systems developed long before the conventional Western medicine that's commonly used in the United States.

Examples of complementary and alternative medicine healing systems include:

  • Ayurveda. This form of medicine, which originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, emphasizes a unique cure per individual circumstances. It incorporates treatments including yoga, meditation, massage, diet and herbs.
  • Homeopathy. This treatment uses minute doses of a substance that causes symptoms to stimulate the body's self-healing response.
  • Naturopathy. This type of treatment focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing. Naturopaths draw on many forms of complementary and alternative medicine, including massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.
  • Ancient medicines. These complementary and alternative medicine treatments include Chinese, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Tibetan practices.

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