An ever-increasing amount of information about alternative medicine is entering mainstream media. Even with all that is being written or said about alternative medicine, many people feel they are not getting the facts they need to make some very basic decisions; they feel they still need to obtain some simple answers to some very important questions.
Because of this lack of knowledge or a trepidation they feel toward unknown terrain, many people are hesitant to explore the field of alternative medicine. For this reason, it is important to answer some basic questions. Below you will find the ten most commonly asked questions about alternative medicine and our answers. These answers will provide you with details about alternative medicine to help you as you begin your journey.
1. What is "Alternative Medicine?"
Because alternative medicine is many things to many people, there is no one-line answer that would define the term simply and clearly to satisfy everyone. This reason alone is why it can be so difficult for some people to get a clear sense of what alternative medicine is — and what it is not. The truth is that one simple definition can't possibly describe all that is now considered "alternative medicine." Given this, what follows are several "answers" to the question, all considered to be "right" according to various experts.
Alternative medicine is made up of a rich array of techniques, modalities, and medical systems that are, for the most part, still unfamiliar to the majority of the public. They are, therefore, as a whole, an "alternative" to what most Americans are using when they need health care.
Much of what is labeled alternative medicine comes to us from other cultures or from ancient healing traditions. For example, the use of herbs as medicine is an ancient practice found all over the world. Acupuncture comes specifically from ancient China and has been documented as being in use as early as 2697 B.C.3
Interestingly, some of what is labeled alternative medicine originated in the United States. Chiropractic medicine, naturopathic medicine (as a formal system of medicine), and osteopathic medicine all have their origins in the U.S.
Contrary to popular belief, many alternative medical techniques are used everyday by people from all walks of life. Prevention magazine's New Choices in Natural Healing explains, "While the term alternative medicine may conjure up some pretty exotic images, many of these therapies are more familiar than you think. If you've ever massaged your temples to ease a headache, applied an ice pack to a sprained ankle, or listened to your car radio to de-stress during a traffic jam, you've already practiced some simple natural healing techniques."4 So whether you were aware of it or not, it is likely you have already used alternative medical techniques in your own life.
In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that between 65 and 80 percent of the world's population (about 3 billion people) rely on traditional (read: "alternative") medicine as their primary form of health care.5 They further state that when these traditional medical treatments are introduced into Western culture, they are seen as complementary or alternative.
Many of the techniques and treatments in the domain of alternative medicine are also "packaged" under a number of other labels today. The more popular of these are unconventional medicine, holistic medicine, complementary medicine, integrative medicine, integral medicine, preventative medicine, and environmental medicine.
"Alternative medicine" is also defined by what it is not. According to David M. Eisenberg, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, alternative medicines are "medical interventions not taught widely at U.S. medical schools or generally available at U.S. hospitals."6 Wayne Jonas, M.D., director of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave the OAM's definition: "Complementary and alternative medicine is defined through a social process as those practices that do not form a part of the dominant system for managing health and disease."7 These two definitions, though currently accurate, will soon be dated. An increasing number of medical schools are now offering courses in alternative medicine for their students, and some hospitals already have alternative medicine departments.
The term alternative medicine can also be considered as a code word for a whole series of significant changes and challenges occurring within the American health care system today, including:
- The realization, that, contrary to previously held beliefs, con-ventional biomedicine (the medicine that most people are familiar with: antibiotics, surgery, chemotherapy, etc.) cannot solve all of America's health problems
- The growing acceptance that health is more than just "the absence of disease" and involves more than just the physical body
- The growing body of scientific research, as well as public awareness, that many alternative medical treatments are more effective, more economical, and less invasive and less harmful than conventional medical treatments
- The growing number of informed health care consumers who are open to trying alternative medical treatments and demanding to be treated as a person — not as a diagnosis — by their health care providers
As stated earlier, each of the above "answers" is considered to be the "right" answer by various groups of experts on the subject. Possibly each of these experts has a part of the answer and not the whole answer. If that is so, each is worthy of consideration when seeking a definition of just exactly what "alternative medicine" is — and is not.
2. What is the difference between alternative medicine and conventional medicine?
Generally speaking, most high quality alternative medicine is founded on six core principles and practices that differ from the principles and historical practices of conventional medicine.
1. The healing power of nature first, and technique and technology second.
Probably the most important difference is that alternative medicine is founded on a deep belief in the healing power of nature (vis medicatrix naturrae). Alternative medical providers accept that within us is a natural ability to heal, an inherent recuperative power that is the key to all healing. The alternative practitioner believes his or her job is to support and stimulate this natural healing ability inherent in each patient.
Biomedicine or conventional medicine has historically tried to reduce the healing process to a series of physiological, physical, and chemical reactions that can be measured and documented by modern science. While there is some truth in this perspective, science has proven it to be an incomplete picture of the healing process. Conventional medicine has come to place more value on the techniques and the technology rather than on the inherent healing power of nature we possess as human beings.
Conventional medicine has historically tried to replace the body's natural healing response by quickly removing symptoms. For example, instead of stimulating and strengthening the immune system to fight an ear infection in a toddler, a biomedical doctor will usually prescribe an antibiotic. The child often receives immediate relief, but at what price? The antibiotic wreaks havoc on their developing digestive system by destroying valuable "friendly" bacteria needed for good digestion. Also, the child's immune system is not any stronger to ward off the next ear infection, thus creating a dependency on antibiotics. The price of immediate relief is the threat of future long-term health problems for the toddler.
The alternative medical practitioner, on the other hand, would suggest a less drastic treatment that stimulates the body's natural healing power. Relief might come through warmed drops of mullein garlic ear oil. Immune stimulation might come through a combination herbal tincture. In truth, a full healing response could take ten days, but the long-term benefits to the child are a stronger immune system and an uncompromised digestive
2. Patient centered rather than physician centered
Biomedicine has historically been perceived as more "physician centered," in which the doctor's opinions and beliefs are considered more important than the patient's. High quality alternative medicine, on the other hand, is first and foremost "patient centered," in which the feelings, beliefs, and the opinions of the patient are essential elements in the treatment decision-making process.
High quality alternative medicine is founded on a deep appreciation of the wonder and mystery of being a unique human being. According to the Burton Goldberg Group's Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, "The return to health . . . is a road which each person must walk according to his or her unique individuality. It is also a road that needs to address one's entire being, taking into account one's mental, emotional, and physical aspects, as well as the structural, biochemical, and energetic components that shape each of us."8
Conventional medicine has come to see the patient as his or her diagnosis rather than as an individual. Further, the role of the patient is a more passive one, being subjected to the authority and expertise of the doctor. Also, in the biomedical model, historically it is assumed that the doctor's skills and best judgment are the final authority. The idea of a shared decision-making process regarding treatment between the doctor and the client/patient is contrary to the traditional role that doctors have historically played in our medical system.
The origins and repercussions of this biomedical doctor/ patient model is explained by author Norman Cousins:
For the past fifty years, the practice of medicine has been dominated by the need to identify diseases and germs. Through the discoveries made by the microscope and the advent of antibiotics, medicine became very specific and technical. This tended to make doctors mechanistic. It tended to obscure recognition of the human soul and its role in contributing to both illness and recovery. Modern medicine tended to place undue emphasis on the prescription pad over bedside manner. This emphasis on medicine and medical machinery created a critical psychological separation between patient and physician. There is no bigger problem in medicine today because when a patient has an illness, nothing is more important than the doctor's reassurance.9
It was the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, who said, "It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has." Like Hippocrates, most alternative practitioners view their clients as human beings rather than a diagnosis. This is one of the reasons that alternative medicine has become so popular.
3. Do no harm
Many alternative medical systems are rooted in the "least dramatic means" principle. The essence of this principle is, "Always use the least drastic harmful therapies first." This means that alternative medical providers, in general, choose techniques and therapies which are the least invasive or harmful to get the desired result.
In today's press, many stories have been published charging that quite often medical doctors do, in fact, harm their patients in the process of treating them. The charges range from unnecessary cesarean sections during childbirth to heart bypass surgeries which could have been avoided through diet and exercise changes. One reason for unnecessary invasive treatments is that the majority of medical doctors are not familiar with effective, less invasive alternative treatments. Historically, doctors have not been taught these procedures in medical school and many don't take alternative therapies seriously — despite the growing body of research around the world that demonstrates their efficacy.
In addition, conventional medicine has come to place greater value on the removing symptoms as quickly as possible — even if additional physical problems are created in the process. Many times a conventional treatment will bring an immediate "cure" by removing the symptoms of an illness while never addressing the true cause so that real "healing" can occur. One might say that it pulls weeds out by their tops while rarely getting to their roots.