Alternative medicine is not the sidelined, new age world of yoga and therapeutic needles it was once perceived to be. It has become a mainstream, $50-billion health care industry in the United States, from which 74 percent of Americans seek some sort of medical help [source: NCCAM]. Not that yoga and acupuncture are in the past. On the contrary, they're two of the most popular forms of complementary therapy today, offered in thousands of conventional-medicine hospitals around the country.
Complementary medicine isn't the same as alternative medicine. Alternative medicine involves the use of something like meditation, herbs or energy therapy to treat cancer instead of radiation or chemotherapy. In complementary medicine, treatments like meditation, herbs or energy therapy are used to treat cancer in addition to radiation or chemo. It's called integrative medicine -- an approach to health that focuses on the whole patient, body and mind, instead of only a particular disease. Complementary medicine is now practiced in more than one-third of hospitals in the United States, a notable increase over the one-quarter of hospitals offering complementary therapies in 2005 [source: MNT].
There are lots of complementary therapies out there, divided typically into broad categories that describe the overall approach or theory behind the treatment:
- Biologically based practices
- Energy medicine
- Manipulative/body based practices
- Mind-body medicine
- Whole medical systems
These are not hard-and-fast distinctions. Some complementary therapies fall into more than one category, like meditation, which is a mind-body therapy and part of a whole medical system known as traditional Chinese medicine.
In this article, we'll find out what each of these complementary approaches entails and which therapies they promote. We'll talk about the five most popular complementary therapies that hospitals offer and what's involved in the treatments. We'll start with another therapy that began thousands of years ago in traditional Chinese medicine: acupuncture.
Whole medical systems are overarching groups of theories and practices that encompass every aspect of health. Homeopathy, for instance, a system that developed in Europe, is based on the principle of "like cures like" -- a homeopath would inject a person with a tiny amount of whatever disease he or she suffers from so his or her body can learn to fight it and heal itself. Traditional Chinese medicine is a whole medical system that revolves around the concepts of balance -- yin and yang -- and energy flow, or "qi," along lines known as meridians. In this medical system, disease and pain are caused by a disruption in the body's flow of energy. Acupuncture, a treatment in traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most common complementary therapies offered in hospitals.
In acupuncture, a practitioner inserts thin metal needles into the skin at specific places. The points align with the body's meridians, the lines along which energy flows. The purpose is to stimulate these points with the needles to encourage the movement of energy (qi) to specific parts of the body, or remove an energy block, in order to restore the body's natural energy flow and thereby alleviate the symptoms of an illness. Acupuncture may be used to treat chronic pain, circulation problems, depression and arthritis.
These conditions are some of the most common reasons why people seek complementary (and alternative) medical therapies. Someone in a hospital experiencing pain or poor circulation might also receive the next treatment on the list.
Hospitals have been offering massage for many years. It's been proven effective in the treatments of pain (chronic, post-surgery and illness-related), arthritis and circulation problems, not to mention muscle soreness.
Massage is part of a group of therapies known as manipulative and body-based medicine. This category also includes practices like chiropractic and yoga (another top five therapy). In manipulative and body-based medicine, the idea is that alignment of joints and the proper circulation to muscle groups and other tissues are crucial to good health. Massage addresses this concept in a direct way, through the working of muscles, tendons and other soft tissues.
A massage therapist uses hands and arms (and sometimes other body parts, like feet) to manipulate the patient's body. Massage increases blood circulation to a part of the body, or throughout the body in general, by rubbing a muscle group and extending joints. This manipulation stimulates the flow of blood to that area, which, in turn, increases the oxygen available to muscles and tissues. Good blood flow is essential for the body to work efficiently and fight disease.
Up next are the related practices of yoga and meditation, which also seek to stimulate areas of the body -- but with the added component of mind-based work.
Meditation and Yoga
Practices like meditation and yoga, offered in hospitals all over the country (and the world), are popular not only in the treatment of sickness but also in the regular maintenance of general health. They're part of a group of therapies known as mind-body medicine, as well as a whole medical system called Ayurveda, which originates in India.
In mind-body medicine, the mind and body are connected integrally. The mind can and does affect a person's health. In this approach, treatments like meditation, yoga, prayer and art are used to alleviate symptoms and assist in the treatment of all sorts of diseases and conditions, including cancer, depression and anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, poor circulation and chronic pain.
In yoga, a person holds poses (or postures) for extended periods of time and stretches muscles in ways that promote not only circulation to certain body parts, but also help to quiet the mind and ease stress. In this practice, a calm and healthy mind helps to heal the body, and a calm and healthy body helps to soothe the mind, which can then better serve the body. Meditation seeks to achieve similar results but it is a still, mind-based approach. People who meditate use techniques such as visual imagery and mantras to focus and clear the mind.
Mind-body medicine is probably the most common group of complementary treatments offered in conventional hospitals. The next two practices on the list are also from this category.
Pastoral (Faith-based) Counseling
The most common complementary therapy in the United States is prayer. More people turn to prayer when they are experiencing health problems than to any other practice [source: NCCAM]. Guided prayer -- not only to a god but also within a general spiritual context -- is just one component of a complementary therapy known as pastoral counseling.
Pastoral or faith-based counseling is offered by most hospitals -- it can be as simple as having a rabbi, reverend, priest and imam on staff or on call in case a patient wants spiritual advice. A hospital might have a chapel in case a patient (and/or patient's family) wishes to pray or just sit in a spiritual place. This group of spiritual treatments can include prayer, spiritual guidance and individual and group therapy. Anyone of any religion, or people who are not involved in any particular religion but are looking for something purposeful beyond themselves, may seek this type of assistance when faced with major medical decisions, and especially when faced with serious or terminal illness.
Pastoral counseling, prayer or spirituality can be viewed in the context of mind-body medicine, since it's based on the idea that a serene mind can help the body to heal and ease pain. Research shows that people who have religious faith tend to be healthier and live longer. This may be due to a reduction in stress associated with prayer, or it may be something more elusive. Between 2003 and 2004 alone, at least 45 percent of Americans used prayer specifically for health reasons [source: NCCAM].
The last of the top five complementary treatments used in hospitals also seeks to cure bodily disease by way of the mind. It's a very common therapy for heart patients, especially.
Among mind-body practices, stress relief is a primary goal. This is actually a body of practices unto itself: Stress management is a critical component in the treatment and prevention of conditions like chronic pain and heart disease; and patients with terminal illness can experience an improved quality of life by reducing their stress levels.
Stress has a direct and documented affect on health. The "stress hormone" cortisol is a factor in heart disease, high blood pressure, pain and mental disorders, among other issues.
There are lots of approaches to stress management -- ways to decrease the amount of cortisol coursing through the body. Yoga and meditation help to ease the mind. A stress-management counselor might recommend cognitive practices like visualization (perhaps going to your "happy place"), mantras and journaling to lower stress levels. There are also behavioral approaches, like giving yourself more time before an appointment so you don't have to rush. Sometimes listening to music can help, and using creative outlets like painting and drawing can ease stress, too. Along these lines, many hospitals offer art and music therapy to their patients.
For more information and complementary and alternative therapies, look over the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- CAM Basics. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/
- From Acupressure to Yoga: Twice as Many Hospitals Now Integrate Alternative Therapy. MarketWire. October 2003. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_pwwi/is_200310/ai_mark1205690822
- Latest Survey Shows More Hospitals Offering Complementary and Alternative Medicine Services. Medical News Today. Sept. 17, 2008. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/121662.php
- Prayer and Spirituality in Health: Ancient Practices, Modern Science. NCCAM/NIH. http://nccam.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2005_winter/prayer.htm
- The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines. http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camsurvey_fs1.htm
- Whole Medical Systems. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicines. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/backgrounds/wholemed.htm