I Alternative Medicine
Alternative Medicine, also called unconventional medicine, therapeutic practices, techniques, and beliefs that are outside the realm of mainstream Western health care. Alternative medicine emphasizes therapies that improve quality of life, prevent disease, and address conditions that conventional medicine has limited success in curing, such as chronic back pain and certain cancers. Proponents of alternative medicine believe that these approaches to healing are safer and more natural and have been shown through experience to work. In certain countries, alternative medical practices are the most widely used methods of health care. However, many practitioners of modern conventional medicine believe these practices are unorthodox and unproven.
In a nationwide survey conducted in the United States by researchers at Harvard Medical School in 1990, one in three respondents reported using at least one unconventional therapy in the past year, and a third of these respondents visited an alternative therapist. Based on these figures, it is estimated that 61 million Americans use alternative medicine. Reports from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia also indicate a widespread interest in alternative therapies.
A special report prepared for the National Institutes of Health, Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons, categorizes alternative medicine practices into six fields. The first field, mind-body intervention, explores the mind’s capacity to affect, and perhaps heal, the body. Studies have shown that the mental state has a profound effect on the immune system, and these studies have provoked interest in the mind’s role in the cause and course of cancer and other diseases. Specific mind-body interventions include meditation, hypnosis, art therapy, biofeedback, and mental healing.
Bioelectromagnetic applications, the second field of alternative medicine, make use of the body’s response to nonthermal, nonionizing radiation. Current uses involve bone repair, nerve stimulation, wound healing, treatment of osteoarthritis, and immune system stimulation.
The third field is alternative systems of medical practice. Each of these systems is characterized by a specific theory of health and disease, an educational program to teach its concepts to new practitioners, and often a legal mandate to regulate its practice. Examples include acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy.
Touch and manipulation are the mainstays of the manual healing methods, which constitute the fourth field of alternative medicine. Practitioners of chiropractic and massage therapy believe that dysfunction of one part of the body often affects the function of other, not necessarily connected, parts. Health is restored by manipulating bones or soft tissues or realigning body parts.
The pharmacological and biological treatments that make up the fifth field of alternative medicine consist of an assortment of drugs and vaccines not yet accepted in mainstream medicine. Compounds such as antineoplastins (from human blood and urine) for AIDS, various products of the honey bee for arthritis, and iscador (a liquid extract from mistletoe) for tumors have not been scientifically evaluated because of the expense of conducting safety and effectiveness studies.
II Popular Therapies
Acupuncture is one of the most thoroughly researched and documented alternative medical practices. While controlled studies have demonstrated some positive effects of acupuncture on a variety of conditions, the statistical results have not been conclusive.
Each year in the United States 2.5 million people use homeopathy and make 5 million visits to homeopathic practitioners. The FDA allows homeopathic products to be sold as long as specific health claims are not made.
A number of studies in reputable scientific journals have suggested that homeopathic remedies are useful for diarrhea, asthma, hay fever, influenza, and migraine headaches. However, critics claim that these studies were flawed and that more scientifically rigorous investigations would likely show no benefit.
In addition to manipulating and adjusting bone and tissue, particularly in the spinal column, chiropractors use a variety of manual, mechanical, and electrical treatments. Chiropractors are most widely recognized for providing drug-free, non-surgical management of back and neck pain as well as of headaches. Some chiropractors also treat a variety of other ailments—such as bladder infections, arthritis, and depression—with spinal adjustments and other manipulations. Disease prevention and health promotion through proper diet, exercise, and lifestyle are other important features of chiropractic medicine.
There are about 50,000 chiropractors in the United States, and they serve up to 7 percent of the population. Licensing is required in all states. Chiropractors are allowed to use manual procedures and interventions but not surgery or chemotherapy.
By watching a monitoring device, patients can learn by trial and error to adjust their mental processes in order to control bodily processes. Electrodes are attached to the area of the patient being monitored—for instance, to the involved muscles during muscle therapy, or to the head during brain-wave monitoring. These electrodes feed the electrical information to a small monitoring box. The results are registered by a tone that varies in pitch or by a visual meter that varies in brightness as the function being monitored changes. The patient engages in mental exercises, in an attempt to reach the desired result, such as muscle relaxation or contraction. Voluntary control may be achieved in as few as ten sessions, although chronic or severe disorders may require longer therapy. Eventually, patients may learn to control symptoms without the use of the monitoring device.
Naturopathy was founded in the beginning of the 20th century by a group of therapists who were followers of Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th-century proponent of the healing powers of nature. At the height of its popularity, there were more than 20 naturopathic medical schools (today there are only three) in the United States and naturopathic physicians were licensed in most states. The practice of naturopathic medicine declined as the use of pharmaceutical drugs increased. However, in the past several decades there has been a resurgence of interest in naturopathy.
Naturopathic medicine integrates alternative medical practices—such as botanical medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, and Oriental medicine—with modern scientific diagnostic methods and standards of care. Naturopathic physicians are trained in conventional medical disciplines as well as in alternative approaches. They integrate this knowledge according to principles that recognize the body’s inherent ability to heal itself, the importance of prevention, and the possibility of therapeutic use of nutrition to promote health and fight disease.
Most of the research on naturopathy has been based on observation of treatments rather than on controlled clinical trials that compare naturopathic therapy with no treatment (a placebo) or with an alternative treatment.
III CURRENT OUTLOOK
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