Many people around the world are now looking to alternative medicine to address health concerns. With the growing popularity of alternative medicine, studies are currently underway to determine the safety and usefulness of many of these treatments.
But alternative health advocates claim that the benefits of these practices aren’t just limited to correcting your health problems. Instead, many alternative and complementary practices focus on improving your quality of life and preventing illness and disease before it can surface.
Research shows that how we live, what we think and how we feel affect our health. Alternative and complementary medicine addresses these important aspects of health, and focuses on supporting the body’s natural ability to heal, reduce stress and promote a state of relaxation that leads to better health.
Before you try complementary and alternative medicine, read this section. It contains information about the difference between alternative and complementary treatments, and the risks and benefits of these practices.
There is also an overview of the most popular types of alternative and complementary treatments, ranging from herbs and supplements to mind-body healing practices. For those suffering with chronic pain, there is also a section with some tips on natural ways to manage and reduce pain without drugs or surgery.
Alternative and complementary medicine are terms used to describe medical products and practices that are not currently recognised as part of conventional western medicine practiced by medical doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. Alternative and complementary medicine includes natural products such as dietary supplements, herbs and probiotics, as well as mind and body practices such as meditation, acupuncture and massage.
Alternative medicine is used in place of standard medical treatments. An example is using a special diet to treat cancer instead of undergoing surgery, radiation or chemotherapy as recommended by a physician.
Unlike alternative medicine, complementary medicine is used together with standard medical care and is meant to accompany, not replace, mainstream medical practices. An example is using acupuncture to help with side effects of cancer treatment.
As treatments undergo testing and move into the mainstream, exactly what's considered alternative and complementary medicine changes regularly. Typically though, alternative and complementary medicine is classified into the 5 categories below:
Whole medical systems: A system isn't just a single practice or remedy, but many practices that centre on a philosophy. Examples of whole medical systems include ancient healing systems such as ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy.
Mind-body medicine: Some alternative and complementary medicine practitioners believe that your mind and body must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. As a result, mind-body techniques are used to strengthen the communication between these two systems. Examples include meditation, prayer and art therapy.
Biologically based practices: These treatments use ingredients found in nature such as dietary supplements and herbal remedies. Herbs and supplements can be taken as teas, oils, syrups, powders, tablets or capsules.
Manipulative and body-based practices: These methods use human touch to move or manipulate a specific part of your body. They include chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation and massage.
Energy medicine: Practioners of energy medicine believe that an invisible energy force flows through your body, and when this energy flow is blocked or unbalanced you can become sick. Different traditions call this energy by different names, such as chi, prana and life force. The goal of these therapies is to unblock or re-balance your energy force. Energy therapies include qi gong, reiki and magnet therapy.
While there is a growing intersection between conventional and complementary practices, scientific research on many alternative and complementary therapies are relatively new. Studies are currently underway to determine the safety and usefulness of many of these treatments. To minimise health risks:
Speak to your doctor about the treatments you are considering. There may be side effects or it could interact with other medicines.
Before you try a treatment, do your research so that you can make informed decisions.
Choose alternative and complementary medicine practitioners carefully.
Inform all of your doctors and practitioners which mainstream and complementary treatments you currently use.
The following is a guide to some of the most popular types of alternative and complementary medicine:
Acupuncture: Trained practitioners insert small, thin needles into specific points in the body to manipulate the body’s natural energy flow and restore a healthy balance. In addition to pain relief, acupuncture is also used to improve wellbeing and treat acute, chronic and degenerative conditions.
Aromatherapy: Using essential oils distilled from plants, aromatherapy treats emotional disorders such as stress and anxiety as well as a wide range of other ailments. Oils are massaged into the skin in diluted form, inhaled, or placed in baths.
Ayurveda: Practiced in India for more than 5,000 years, ayurveda uses herbs, diet, meditation and massage to treat the whole self and restore balance to the body. Practitioners believe that a poorly managed prana, or life energy, is the cause of illness, and that the illness can only be treated by realigning the mind, body and spirit.
Guided imagery: With guided imagery, patients are asked to focus on a specific image or concept, with the belief that visualising an activity promotes the same brain activity as actually performing the activity. This practice is gaining ground for cancer patients, stroke victims and those who suffer from anxiety and stress.
Herbal medicine: This is the use of medicinal herbs to prevent and treat diseases and ailments or to promote health and healing.
Homeopathy: This approach uses minute doses of a substance that causes symptoms to stimulate the body's self-healing response.
Hypnosis: Hypnotists guide a patient to an altered state of consciousness, and then make subtle suggestions to help the patient improve their wellbeing. Hypnosis is often used to treat phobias and stress, and to help patients lose weight and stop smoking.
Meditation: During meditation, patients focus on slow, even breathing to clear distractions and ease the mind. Because of its ability to reduce stress levels, meditation may also relieve depression, insomnia and anxiety while lowering long-term risk of disease.
Massage: Massage therapists manually manipulate a person's muscles and other soft tissues of the body. This practice helps to ease pain or tension and to improve a person’s overall sense of wellbeing.
Naturopathy: This approach focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing and uses a variety of practices, such as massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.
Reiki: Reiki is a health approach in which practitioners place their hands lightly on or just above a person, with the goal of facilitating the person’s own healing response.
Spinal manipulation: Spinal manipulation is practiced by health care professionals such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, physical therapists and some medical doctors. Practitioners align bones, joints, muscles and the spine to improve health and relieve pain.
Yoga: Yoga combines physical postures with relaxed breathing and meditation, helping to unite the body and mind.
Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the human body is regarded as an organic entity in which the various organs, tissues, and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent. In this view, health and disease relate to balance of the functions. Practitioners typically use herbs, acupuncture and other methods to treat a wide range of conditions and restore balance to the body.
Are you experiencing pain but looking for natural ways to feel happier, healthier and pain-free? From herbs that ease inflammation to mind-body techniques that leverage your body’s natural healing powers, there is no shortage of alternative treatments you can try.
Herbal remedies and supplements: Herbal remedies and supplements are used often in pain relief, particularly to reduce inflammation that worsens pain. Although it’s recommended to consult with your doctor first, some of the most popular remedies include omega-3 fish oil supplements, anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric, and the topical use of capsaicin.
Meditation: Simple breathing exercises employed in meditation, can lessen your perception of pain and help you manage your symptoms. Meditation can also help reduce the depression, anxiety, stress and sleeping problems that often accompany chronic pain.
Yoga: Aside from being a stress buster, yoga is great for easing the symptoms of chronic back pain. Yoga postures stretch and loosen the muscles, ligaments and tendons in and around the spine. The increase in motion in your back can provide meaningful and sustained pain relief, placing it among the American Pain Foundation’s recommended treatments for lower-back pain.
Qi Gong and Tai Chi: These two mind-body practices originated in ancient China, and are thought to be effective in reducing pain associated with arthritis, fibromyalgia and musculoskeletal disorders. Some studies reported that patients who practiced qi gong and tai chi had less joint pain and stiffness than those who didn’t.
Massage: Massage therapy not only feels great, but has been shown to boost levels of endorphins and serotonin, the body’s natural painkillers and mood regulators. Massage can also relieve muscle tension and improve blood flow, making it especially effective in treating back pain, osteoarthritis, tension headaches, fibromyalgia, neck pain and surgery-related discomfort.
Acupuncture: In the ancient practice of acupuncture, tiny needles are inserted into specific points in the body. While still not completely understood, it has been proven in medical trials to reduce certain types of chronic pain, including back pain.
Hypnotherapy and guided imagery: Hypnotherapy and guided imagery are two techniques used to ease pain, and are thought to be especially effective in treating lower back pain and post-surgery pain. Hypnotherapy involves influencing the subconscious mind to change your inner thinking, allowing you to alter the way you view pain and assisting in your body’s healing process. Guided imagery is a proven form of focused relaxation that coaches you in creating calm, peaceful images in your mind. It enables you to hear and internalise therapeutic suggestions that help you feel better.