Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine

Used by about one in three Americans, complementary therapies such as botanical medicine and ayurvedic treatments can be smart alternatives to conventional health care.

acupuncture

Acupuncture is often used to manage pain.

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According to the National Institutes of Health, roughly 72 million adults (around 38 percent) use some form of alternative medicine. Add to that another 12 percent of children (about one in nine) and you have roughly one-third of the U.S. population using some sort of alternative therapy. Categorized as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies, these practices include a variety of approaches. Some of the major categories include: Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which includes herbalism and tai chi or qi gong; Ayurveda, which includes herbalism, diet, yoga and meditation; nutritional counseling; botanical medicine; homeopathy; and naturopathic medicine, which includes elements of all of the above, as well as physical medicine, hydrotherapy and counseling.

People are drawn to these therapies for a variety of reasons: to find relief from a condition that conventional therapy has failed to resolve; to avoid conventional medicine due to side effects or invasiveness of the therapy; and because of the frequently lower costs of CAM therapies. CAM therapies tend to focus more on preventive therapy, and they often engage the patient in more individualized health care. For example, the tenets of naturopathic medicine include “Stimulating the Healing Power of Nature,” “Doctor as Teacher” and “First Do No Harm.” These indicate the ways in which naturopathic medicine aims to take advantage of the body’s own healing systems, rather than treating one isolated area or symptom without a holistic view of how this treatment may affect other parts of the body. The naturopathic physician has a responsibility to teach patients about their own health and empower them to be active participants in their own wellness. Traditional Asian therapies such as acupuncture and Ayurveda also have some of these philosophies embedded in their practice. Studies on acupuncture and naturopathic care have demonstrated that engaging active patient participation alone increases satisfaction and beneficial treatment outcomes. 

What the Science Says

Numerous studies have examined the specific use of some of these alternative therapies. In a 2007 study on chronic low back pain, participants received naturopathic care—including dietary counseling, deep breathing techniques and acupuncture—over the course of 12 weeks, during which time the participants quantified their pain and quality of life. Compared with a control group, which was only given relaxation techniques and a routine physiotherapy handout on how to manage chronic low back pain, the alternative therapy recipients not only decreased pain but also increased quality of daily life, allowing them to function more fully and normally. Considering the significant costs associated with chronic low back pain to employers in missed work and health care (estimated at $100 to $200 billion a year, according to the World Health Organization), this study suggests that not only can pain be diminished and daily function repaired, but a positive impact on savings in health-care coverage would also be gained.

Another study from 2015 examined the effects of acupressure and acupuncture on dysmenorrhea (significant pain and cramping during menstruation). While both treatments offered pain relief, it may be equally significant that they also improved emotional and mental well-being—reducing stress, for example—and demonstrated an overall improvement in quality of life. It is easy to surmise that this could be a highly effective treatment option, whether as adjunctive care or primary treatment.

Anxiety is another common ailment that is frequently relieved using alternative therapies. Many studies have examined the use of botanicals, nutritional supplements and mind-body medicine techniques on anxiety disorders. The majority of these have been quite positive and effective. One study from 2013 focused on treating generalized anxiety disorders with CAM therapies such as acupuncture, yogic breathing techniques and/or partner-assisted massage, aromatherapy, dietary counseling and exercise. The outcomes of this study found significant reductions in anxiety, which included reductions in use of anxiolytic medications and reports of stress and pain. The interesting piece of this study, as well as others, is the overwhelming eagerness for the participants to engage in their own health care. Because many CAM therapies make a concerted effort to encourage patient participation in care, it is worth considering the impact this has on the overall health and quality- of-life improvements these studies tend to show.

A study from 2014 in the Complementary Therapies in Medicine journal found that recovery from chronic stroke could be improved with yoga. The study assessed several quantifiable factors such as pain, range of motion, muscle strength and endurance. An eight-month therapeutic yoga program, done twice a week, found improvements in all of the measured areas including active range of motion, strength and endurance, and reducing pain in areas such as the hips and extremities. The researchers recommended that therapeutic yoga be incorporated into the rehabilitation program for sufferers of stroke as it would likely improve many aspects
of health and decrease recovery time.

Ayurvedic medicine utilizes a variety of alternative approaches including dietary changes, yoga, botanicals, and meditation and breathing exercises. A 2015 study done at the University of New Mexico Cardiology Clinic examined whether an Ayurvedic approach would be helpful for coronary heart disease.

Intending to gauge effectiveness and feasibility of a comprehensive Ayurvedic approach, researchers had participants see an Ayurvedic physician with more than 40 years of experience, who prescribed each participant various therapeutic approaches including following an Ayurvedic diet, using Ayurvedic herbs, meditating, and practicing yoga and breathing exercises. The results showed several markers of improved cardiac health including reduction of cholesterol and triglycerides, reduced Body Mass Index and the ability to reduce or eliminate antihypertensive medications.

Treat the Cause

Most CAM therapies focus on preventative medicine in addition to the treatment of specific ailments. Preventative medicine aims to stave off medical ailments and conditions by focusing on health-enhancing lifestyle habits, including those related to diet, exercise, stress and sleep. When ailments do arise, CAM therapies work to solve the underlying causes of illness, rather than treating isolated symptoms. Indeed, this is one of the core tenets of naturopathic medicine—“Treat the Cause”—and other CAM philosophies such as Ayurveda and TCM also focus treatment on resolving the underlying causes of a condition. For example, if you suffer from chronic stomachaches, you could treat it with a variety of over-the-counter tablets for gas relief or acid inhibitors without realizing that your stomach pain was caused by a food intolerance, or an imbalance of beneficial gut bacteria. These problems, and the accompanying gas and discomfort, could be easily and permanently remedied with a slight dietary change or a probiotic supplement, with far fewer side effects and risks than long-term use of over-the-counter remedies. Natural therapies are also beneficial to the overall condition of the organ systems thanks to their tendency to tone tissues and support optimal health.

Another highly beneficial aspect of CAM therapies is their efficacy in treating children’s health issues. As I know from my own clinical experience, children seem to especially benefit from the use of CAM therapies. It’s rewarding to see how many of my child patients are able to experience fewer overall struggles with ear infections, lung infections, asthma and other chronic pediatric issues. This is not due to any single treatment, but rather to the practice of prevention, and discovering and addressing underlying issues. Promoting breastfeeding and a whole-foods diet alone can diminish the likelihood for all of these chronic pediatric illnesses, as many studies have shown. And when children do get the inevitable cold or flu, I have also found using botanicals or other natural therapies at least equally as effective as, if not better than, pharmaceutical treatments, and without risk of side effects.

CAM and the Economy

Another major benefit of CAM therapies? They often can save money for patients, as well as for employers. Patients spend, out-of-pocket, nearly $34 billion on health care annually in the U.S. Many studies have attempted to evaluate the potential cost-effectiveness of CAM therapies. One such study on cardiovascular disease (CVD) prevention found that after one year of naturopathic care, the 10-year CVD risk of a cardiovascular event was reduced by 3.3 percent.

This may not sound like a lot, but it translates to an average reduction in costs by $1,138 per person and a reduction in employer costs by $1,187 per person when compared with conventional care alone.

Similar outcomes have been found in the study of adult-onset diabetic care. When lifestyle and dietary counseling were included, the incidence of diabetes was reduced by 58 percent and the onset of diabetes could be delayed by eight years more than when using pharmaceutical management alone. This results in a cost savings of about $20,000 per person.

Many more examples show similar outcomes for a wide variety of health conditions. It is safe to say that these alternative therapies have a place in modern medicine in terms of their potential in providing more cost-effective, beneficial and long-term health improvements. 

Learn more about natural medicine and alternative treatments:

Defining Types of Natural Medicine
Homeopathic Treatments and ADHD