For those suffering from debilitating pain or a condition doctors can't seem to treat, alternative medicine may offer some form of relief or simply help patients deal with life-changing health problems. Even healthy people may participate in practices like yoga, homeopathy or acupuncture to try to manage their health more holistically or avoid the chemicals used in standard drugs.
Nearly four out of 10 adults in the U.S. use some form of complementary or alternative medicine (also called CAM). Most of them rely on alternative care, holistic treatments and mind/body practices to supplement, not replace, traditional Western care and established medical treatment programs.
Before you engage in any form of alternative medical care, remember that conventional medicine normally is held to high standards of proven effectiveness and safety. Just because something is natural or holistic doesn't mean it can't damage your health or well-being. Talk to your doctor to determine the best way to add these 10 alternative medicine treatments into your wellness plan.
If ingesting a small amount of a substance can produce a range of symptoms in a healthy person, could that same substance also be used to treat those symptoms in someone suffering from an illness? Practitioners of homeopathic medicine think so, and nearly 2 percent of the U.S. population relies on this traditional method of health care to treat and prevent disease [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. Developed in Germany more than two centuries ago, homeopathy is based on the idea that "like cures like," meaning that the substances that make you ill can also help you stay well.
Homeopathic practitioners analyze patients as individuals, and then prescribe a variety of pills to bring the body into balance and get rid of disease. Doses are infinitively small, and include many herbal and plant-based remedies as well as yoga, meditation and other traditional practices.
These tiny doses pose one of the biggest problems for researchers when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of homeopathic treatment. Not only is it difficult to measure and observe such a small dose, but the individualized treatments used in homeopathy make it hard to generate meaningful statistics. Anecdotal evidence suggests that homeopathy may help treat diarrhea, allergies, asthma and vertigo, but little scientific evidence exists to support these claims [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine].
Hypnotists guide a patient to an altered state of consciousness, then make subtle suggestions to help the patient improve his health and well-being. Hypnosis has long been used to help patients stop smoking, lose weight and treat insomnia [source: University of Minnesota]. Hypnosis also shows promise for stress relief, pain management, headaches, dental pain and childbirth. Although scientists know little about how hypnosis works, studies have shown that hypnosis creates a biological reaction within the body, including stimulation of the nervous system [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine].
One caveat to keep in mind is that studies suggest it doesn't work for everyone. Some practitioners believe that patients with an open mind toward the treatment experience more measurable results, and others feel there's simply no way to know if hypnosis will affect you or not [source: Oregon Health and Science University].
If you've ever stretched and relaxed your muscles in a yoga class at the gym or a local yoga studio, you may have noticed an improvement in your flexibility and circulation. But did you know yoga also provides some serious health benefits? Studies show that regular yoga practice reduces stress, eases depression and helps control high blood pressure and diabetes symptoms [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. It also helps to reduce inflammation, which can improve asthma symptoms, ease back pain and even keep your heart healthier over time [source: Ohio State University]. Unlike traditional medical care, yoga comes with a low price tag and poses few risks, making it accessible to a wide variety of people.
More than 7 percent of people in the U.S. practice yoga, and people around the world have enjoyed this traditional treatment for thousands of years [source: Harvard Medical School]. Yoga classes combine physical postures and gentle stretching with relaxed breathing and meditation, helping to unite the mind, body and spirit for maximum health.
Of course, even with its many benefits, yoga can't replace your family doctor. Instead, try different types of yoga to complement your regular medical care plan, and ask your instructor about the best classes for your specific wellness concerns.
7: Guided Imagery
Visualization, or guided imagery, is a practice that's gaining ground for cancer patients, stroke victims and those who suffer from anxiety and stress. Doctors direct patients to focus on a specific image or concept to improve the connection between the mind and body. In medical studies, brain scans of patients who follow this practice show that visualizing an activity promotes the same brain activity as actually performing the activity. This provides strong evidence for using guided imagery to help stroke patients relearn basic actions, or to treat patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers also hope that visualization techniques can make the cancer treatment process easier for patients and help address a number of psychological and stress-related conditions [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine].
Best of all, guided imagery poses little to no risk for most patients, and can be practiced almost anywhere, making it accessible to a wide audience.
People in India have relied on the ancient practice of Ayurveda for thousands of years to prevent and treat illness. Ayurvedic practitioners use herbs, diet, breathing, massage and meditation to treat the whole self and restore balance in the body. They focus on maintaining a healthy prana, or life energy, which shares many characteristics with the qi of Chinese medicine. A poorly managed prana is believed to cause illness, and this illness can only be treated by realigning the mind, body and spirit to rebalance the prana.
For the most part, Ayurveda remains a relatively safe practice, and shows promise as a way to boost memory and focus [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. However, practitioners should be aware that no scientific evidence exists to support most health claims associated with Ayurveda, and some supplements used in this practice can be dangerous [source: University of Minnesota]. The FDA warns of heavy metal content in some herbal remedies, and other natural supplements can interfere with medications used to treat blood pressure or other conditions. Before you undergo Ayurvedic treatment, consult a licensed physician to learn more about the associated health risks.
Massage has become a mainstream part of the modern lifestyle, but few recognize it as a legitimate medical treatment. During a massage, therapists manipulate muscles to ease pain and tension, but some types of massage may also help improve a variety of other health conditions. Perhaps most promising is a University of Miami study showing improved immune function in HIV patients after massage therapy [source: National Institutes of Health]. Certain types of massage also ease cancer treatment symptoms and help reduce the severe pain of fibromyalgia [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. For professional athletes and weekend warriors, sports massage eases muscle soreness, speeds recovery and may even improve performance.
Few medical professionals associate massage with any serious health risks, although a massage that's too intense may cause pain or discomfort. Talk to your doctor before you add massage to your wellness plan, and of course, don't attempt to replace more well-established treatments with this alternative medical practice.
More than 10 percent of the U.S. population has tried meditation at some point in their lives, making it one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine [source: National Institutes of Health]. During meditation, patients focus on slow, even breathing and keeping the mind clear of distraction. Some also use a trigger word or idea to help them ease into this practice, while others may even incorporate prayer or spiritual teachings. For the majority of practitioners, meditation provides a free, personalized and versatile method of stress relief that can be performed virtually anywhere and at anytime. For others, this practice may also have far-reaching health effects. And it seems there's a growing body of scientific evidence to support its effectiveness.
According to the National Institutes of Health, meditation may improve focus and relieve the effects of attention-deficit disorder. Studies also show an improvement in asthma, pain and high blood pressure symptoms among those who meditate regularly. Because of its ability to reduce stress levels, meditation may also relieve depression, insomnia and anxiety while lowering long-term risk for disease [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. Patients often combine meditation with yoga or Tai Chi to enjoy additional physical and mental health benefits.
3: Spinal Manipulation
Chiropractors align bones, joints, muscles and the spine to improve health and relieve pain. Well-established scientific studies support the use of spinal manipulation to treat back and neck pain, but no evidence exists to show that this practice can effectively treat headaches, asthma or other conditions.
For a more holistic approach, consider osteopathic spinal manipulation. Doctors in this field combine traditional chiropractic techniques with homeopathic techniques to treat the whole body. Despite little evidence to support this field of medicine, some patients find it a fitting method of care.
Although spinal manipulation is generally safe, it can't replace regular medical care for the vast majority of patients. It also poses a serious risk for stroke patients, or those with artery and nerve-related damage. Some doctors even warn that choosing spinal manipulation for pain could cause patients to miss signs of serious diseases, such as cancer [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. Before you visit a chiropractor, consult your family practitioner to learn more about this type of treatment and how it could affect your health.
2: Herbal Medicine
Many of the vitamins and nutritional supplements you take each day have their roots in ancient Chinese medicine or other alternative medical treatments. Although most supplements remain unregulated in the U.S., some well-established scientific studies support the use of many popular herbal remedies. For example, fish oil is proven to reduce your risk of heart disease, and may also help treat arthritis and depression [source: National Institutes of Health]. Garlic may reduce your risk of cancer or heart disease and help lower cholesterol, and ginseng provides important benefits for heart patients and those suffering from depression [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. Thousands of other herbal supplements may also provide some benefits, but results are less established for most.
Despite the lack of clinical evidence for some herbal remedies, natural supplements remain the most widely used alternative treatment in the U.S. [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine]. This widespread use doesn't necessarily mean these supplements are safe for consumption, however. Some contain dangerous toxins, such as lead or mercury, and others may interact with your current medications. A number of herbal remedies are downright dangerous, and pose serious risk of heart attack, stroke or even death. Talk to your doctor before trying any new health product, and look for supplements backed by reputable scientific research, not gimmicky marketing spiels or testimonials.
Acupuncture dates back thousands of years in China and other Asian nations, but it's only more recently gained ground as an established medical practice in other parts of the world. Trained practitioners use small, thin needles to manipulate the body's natural energy flow, or qi (also chi, pronounced "chee"). By inserting these needles into more than 400 specific points on the body, the acupuncturist can redirect qi to cure or prevent certain medical conditions. If you'd prefer your qi balanced without the needles, try acupressure, which relies on massage or pressure instead of penetration [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine].
Today, more than 3 million people in the U.S. use acupuncture, and many well-known medical organizations recognize this practice to treat some conditions. The World Health Organization supports the use of acupuncture for treating more than 28 medical conditions, including pain, respiratory and digestive disorders. Mayo Clinic also recommends acupuncture for patients suffering from fibromyalgia, nausea, back pain or headaches [source: Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine].
Most acupuncture proponents recommend balancing acupuncture and traditional Western medicine to enjoy the most complete medical care possible. It's also important to recognize the limitations of acupuncture, and to understand that not all conditions can be treated successfully with this type of alternative medicine.
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- Mayo Clinic. "Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine." Time, Inc., New York, NY. 2010.
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- Oregon Health and Science University. "Alternative Therapy-Hypnosis." Date Unknown. (Accessed Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/clinical-hypnosis
- University of Minnesota. "Clinical Hypnosis." 2010. 09/08/2010. http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/clinical-hypnosis
- University of Minnesota. "Is Ayurvedic Medicine Safe?" 2010. (Accessed Sept. 8, 2010) http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/ayurvedic-medicine/-ayurvedic-medicine-safe-0
- World Health Organization. "Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials." 1996. (Accessed Sept. 8, 2010) http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/pdf/s4926e/s4926e.pdf