The Medicine of the Future: The Growth of Alternative Medicine in Society
Alternative medicine is a very general term whose definition can be quite controversial. It includes many holistic techniques for preventing and treating illnesses. Acupuncture and many other therapies have long been a part of Asian cultures and have recently integrated into the Western culture. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) comprises a wide variety of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies. Alternative medicine should be considered a real compliment to conventional medicine due to its standard of practice, treatment, and costs.
From Reflexology and Rolfing to shiatsu and dream work, a mass of alternative medical therapies confronts us today. James Whorton notes in Nature Cures that the recent explosion in alternative medicine actually reflects two centuries of competition and conflicts between mainstream medicine and numerous unorthodox systems. The history of alternative medicine in America brought by Asian cultures examines the major systems that have emerged from 1800 to the present. Alternative medicine practitioners take a holistic approach to health (Whorton13).
Alternative medical systems built upon complete systems of theory and practice. Often, these systems evolved apart from and earlier than conventional medical approaches used in U.S. Examples of alternative medical systems that have developed in Western cultures include acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, and naturopathic medicine. Systems that have developed in non-western culture include traditional Chinese medicine and ayurveda. Mind and body medicine uses a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Some techniques that were considered CAM in the past have become mainstream, for example patient’s support groups and cognitive behavior therapies. Biologically based therapies in CAM use substances found in nature but yet scientifically unproven therapies. Manipulative and body-based methods in CAM are based on manipulation and/or movement for one or more parts of the body; these include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation and massage. Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields such as biofield therapies and are included to affect energy fields that surround the human body. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies involve the unconventional use of electrons, a genetic field such as pulse fields, magnetic fields, or alternative current or direct current fields (Whorton 277).
Acupuncture is a strong component in China and can be traced to the Chinese health care system for at least 2,500 years (Kowalski 49). The procedure involves inserting hair-thin steel surgical needles into specific points in the body, which are supposed to make one feel better and be healthier. This is only the technical aspect though. To understand the “art” of this procedure, one must have a background in Chinese medicine. How it works is this: health is achieved though the balance of the opposing forces between “yin” (spirit), and “yang” (blood). The attraction between them creates an energy called “Qi” (pronounced chee). This energy flows to all parts of the body through channels, which are known as “meridians” (pathways that run along the surface of the body and branch into the body’s interior). An imbalance in these forces is what is believed to cause illness and disease. When needles are placed on the acupuncture points along the meridians, balance and, hence, health is restored. “There is several styles of acupuncture, the differences being how the acupuncture points are stimulated, be it by hand pressure, electrical impulse, ultrasound, or wavelengths of light” noted Bernal.
Acupuncture was introduced to American doctors by Sir William Osler (Whorton 263), who is often called the father of modern medicine. In a classic medical textbook written more than a century ago, he said, “Acupuncture is the most effective treatment of all for acute lumbago, [….] ordinary bonnet needles, sterilized, will do” (Whorton 263). The first time acupuncture really got notice was not until 1972. James Reston, a New York Times correspondent, was assigned to cover President Nixon’s now historic trip to China. During his stay, Reston had an emergency appendectomy and was treated with acupuncture for the postoperative pain he had to endure. The report of his experience with acupuncture caught the interest of many American doctors who wanted to see how the Chinese used acupuncture as an anesthetic. Many non-physicians went to train overseas or with acupuncturists who had been silently practicing in the States, in many Asian communities. These people then fought to gain laws that would allow acupuncture to be practiced legally in the US (Whorton 265).
In contrast to acupuncture, ayurveda “the science of life” is based on the belief that the natural state of the body is one of balance. We become ill when this balance is disrupted, with specific conditions or symptoms indicating a specific disease or imbalance. Ayurveda emphasizes strengthening and purifying the whole person, whereas in conventional medicine, the focus is on a set of symptoms or an isolated region of the body (Chopra 14).
Currently in the United States, there are two adaptations of classical Ayurvedic medicine being practiced. Maharishi Ayur-Veda was started within the past decade by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Hindu swami best known for popularizing Transcendental Meditation (Chopra 148). Most of the published studies of Ayurveda are on this type, which concentrates on consciousness and meditation as key in health and healing. Dr. Deepak Chopra, a Western-trained endocrinologist, recently popularized the more traditional type of Ayurveda. While advocating the use of meditation, this type places more emphasis on the other Ayurvedic mind-body modalities such as yoga, breathing, and massage therapy, in an attempt to regain balance (Chopra 18).
The name, homeopathy, comes from the Greek word “homio”, meaning “like”, and “pathos”, meaning “suffering”. Homeopathic medicines treat illness by going with, rather than against, symptoms that are seen as the body’s natural defenses. In contrast, “allopathic” or conventional medicine acts by suppressing the symptoms of illness (Kowalski 22).
The underlying philosophy of homeopathy, known as similia similibus curentur or “like may be cured by like,” was developed by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician, while experimenting with cinchona bark (quinine) as a cure for malaria (Kowalski 27). When Hahnemann administered cinchona to himself, he developed the symptoms of malaria – fever, diarrhea, vomiting, pain, and numb fingers and toes; however, when quinine was given to a patient complaining of those same symptoms of malaria, he found it helped them fight the illness. From his initial experiment, Hahnemann and his students methodically tested thousands of substances in a process called “provings” (Kowalski 28).
The practice of homeopathic medicine flourished in both Europe and the United States in the late 1800s until the early 1900s. In the early 1900s, there were 22 homeopathic medical schools and over 100 homeopathic hospitals in the United States (Whorton 70). The practice of homeopathic medicine dropped sharply with the rise of allopathic medicine, but it has regained its popularity in recent years. In Europe, it continues to be practiced along with conventional medicine, particularly in England, France, Germany, and Greece. Homeopathy is extremely popular in India — which has over one hundred, four-year homeopathic medical schools — and it is also practiced in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa (Whorton 81). These are just a few examples of how alternative medicine can work.
In comparing conventional medicine to alternative medicine, many doctors dismiss alternative medicine as unproven, ineffective, and potentially dangerous nonsense, leading advocates to seek the kind of evidence that will persuade the scientific community at large. Claire Rayner of the Doctor Patient Partnership is skeptical and says patients should tread carefully if they are looking for alternative treatment because science proves that is not always the answer (Arias 34). For example, hormone therapies have not proven very successful with natural health. Most cancers often survive any type of natural treatment and in most cases claim the patient’s life.
A major objection to alternative medicine is that it is done in place of conventional medical treatments. As long as alternative treatments are used in addition to standard conventional medical treatments, most physicians find most forms of complementary medicine acceptable (Fine 23). Consistent with previous studies, the CDC recently reported that the majority of individuals in the United States (i.e., 55%) used CAM in conjunction with conventional medicine (More Americans). Patients should however always inform their physician if they are using alternative medicine. Some patients do not tell their doctors since they fear it will hurt their patient-doctor relationship. While there are those physicians who practice complementary medicine who believe there is value in alternative forms of treatment, care must be taken when these treatments are used in conjunction with mainstream medicine. Some alternative treatments however can interfere with regular treatments. An example is the combination of chemotherapy and large doses of vitamin C, which can severely damage the kidneys. Some methods once considered alternative have later been adopted by conventional medicine, when confirmed by controlled studies indicating the boundary lines between the two have changed over time. Many very old conventional medical practices are now seen as alternative medicine, as modern controlled studies have shown that certain treatments were not actually effective. Supporters of alternative methods suggest that much of what is currently called alternative medicine will be similarly assimilated by the mainstream in the future (Sierpina 281).
Alternative medicine provides the public with services not available from conventional medicine. This argument covers a range of areas, such as patient empowerment, alternative methods of pain management, methods that support the biopsychosocial model of health, cures for specific health concerns, and stress reduction services. Another preventative health service that is not typically a part of conventional medicine or complementary medicine’s palliative care, and is practiced by world-renowned cancer centers is COX-2 inhibiting herbs. The inhibition of COX-2 enzyme significantly reduces the inflammation that is currently linked with arthritis, colon and other cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease (Newmark 23).
While taking these herbs and undergoing alternative therapies there is a concern that patients may delay seeking conventional medicine that could be more effective, and potentially resulting in harm. Relying on the placebo effect is therefore dangerous, since it may convince people that the alternative treatment works while it is in fact only the placebo effect. People who are thus convinced that alternative medicine helped them with a mere inconvenience may be tempted to use ineffective alternative medicine for a serious, possibly life-threatening illness. Due to the wide range of types of alternative medicine, few criticisms apply across the board. Criticisms directed at specific branches of alternative medicine range from the minor (conventional treatment is believed to be more effective in a particular area) to potential violations of the known laws of physics, for example, in homeopathy.
While some scientific evidence exists regarding CAM therapies many forms of alternative medicine are rejected by conventional medicine, because the efficacy of the treatments has not been demonstrated through double-blind randomized controlled trails (Arias 34). Where alternative methods provide temporary symptomatic relief, this has been explained as being due to the placebo effect, natural healing, or the cyclic nature of some illnesses. Practices termed as “alternative medicine” have caused deaths indirectly when patients have used alternatives in attempts to treat such conditions as appendicitis and failed. Proponents of alternative medicine say that people should be free to choose whatever method of healthcare they want. Critics agree that people should be free to choose, but when choosing, people must be certain that whatever method they choose will be safe and effective. People who choose alternative medicine may think they are choosing a safe, effective medicine, while they may only be getting pretend remedies. This can be a particular issue in the treatment of children, animals, and individuals whose capacity to evaluate the treatment is impaired (Kowalski 24).
When examining health care where it is state-funded or funded by medical insurance, alternative therapies are often not covered and must be paid for by the patient. Further, in some countries, some branches of alternative medicine are not properly regulated. Therefore, there is no governmental control on who practices and no real way of knowing what training or expertise they possess in these countries. “CAM treatments are not reimbursed by health plans in United States, but auto accidents or Workers Comp and some Blue Cross Blue Shield management plans covers this treatment, and they are out of pocket expense,” noted Bernall. Homeopaths have to be licensed in one or more organization for managed care reimbursement. Even though researchers show great benefit from homeopathy drugs they need to be licensed or work under an acupuncturist, naturopath, M.D. or D.O. (Ullman 72).
The uses of CAM therapies are evolving but the physicians do not have enough knowledge; their main concern is the safety and efficiency of CAM. In the past there is a thin based and underpowered study on CAM. Increasing numbers of medical colleges have begun offering courses in alternative medicine; however, the term used in the universities is “integrative medicine” (Sierpina 280).The practitioner of CAM focuses on the patient, as a whole being. This will lead to an era where both conventional and alternative medicine will be practiced. “It is an approach that many physicians use” (Sierpina 281). Many health systems offer CAM therapies as an awareness program for pain management, in conjunction with their standard care (Sierpina 281).
Alternative medicine is popular among the Eastern cultures as well as Western cultures. Since patients and the societies general care is shifting to alternative method of care the idea that a collection system could be implemented in a CAM clinic utilizing several treatment modalities has merit. Outcomes demonstrated both a significant reduction in pain and improvement in quality of life for subject who utilized acupuncture, chiropractic, or naturopathy treatments. While whole medical systems differ in their philosophical approaches to the prevention and treatment of disease, they share a number of common elements. These systems are based on the belief that one’s body has the power to heal itself. Treatment is often individualized and dependant on the presenting symptoms. The alternative medicine should be used as a system with conventional medicine.
Arias, Donya c. “Alternative Medicines’ popularity prompts concern.” Nation’s Health August 2004(34:6).
Bernall, Fernando. Personal Interview. 31 May 2005
Chopra, Deepak M.D. Quantum Healing. New York: Bantam Books.1989.
Fine, Allan. “Growth in Demand for CAM.” Complementary Alternative Medicine Managed care quarterly 2005, 13(2):23
Kowalski, Kathiann M. Alternative Medicine Is IT For YOU? Springfield, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 1998.
“More Americans Than Ever Use CAM, Says CDC.” Nursing 2004 September 2004.73.
Newmark, Thomas M and Paul Schulick. Beyond Aspirin. Arizona: HOHM press, 2000.
Sierpina, Victor. S M.D. “complementary and Alternative Medicine: Introduction,” Southern Medical Association March 2005 (98:3):280-281
Ullman, Dana. “Homeopathy and Managed care: manageable or unmanageable?” The journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 1999 (5):65-73
Whorton, James c. Natures Cures the History of Alternative Medicine in America. New York: oxford university press, 2002.