1. Opinion

Knowledge is best complement to alternative medicine

Published Nov. 23, 2012

More people are going beyond the borders of scientific medicine, searching for a cure to their ailments or simply seeking to improve and rejuvenate their health.

One of my patients, suffering from chronic pain from arthritis despite conventional medicines, told me she is much better after acupuncture.

An older gentleman who had coronary bypass surgery twice and still experienced frequent angina decided to go for chelation therapy. He returned after a few weeks in a much worse situation. One woman on blood thinners had excessive bleeding that turned out to be from concomitant usage of a Chinese herb for improved memory.

Some of the commonly asked questions by patients are: Can I take herbal medicines? They are natural, right? Does garlic actually reduce cholesterol? I just don't like these drugs; can I try Chinese remedies? Are they harmless?

A lot of people resort to alternative therapies. It has now grown into a $35 billion industry. These nostrums include naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, herbal therapy, yoga and meditation, tai chi, mega doses of vitamins and dietary supplements and many more.

All these are grouped under the term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), defined as medical approaches traditionally not addressed in allopathic or western medicine.

It is not that people are disenchanted with conventional medicine, but they feel some of these therapies would be complementary to their current regime and might enhance their health and well being. Also, the number of non-conventional healers advertising their products with wild claims of health benefits has steadily increased, which entices more people to try them.

The National Institute of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998 to research alternative medicine and disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals alike.

Two years ago, the center and AARP partnered on a telephone survey and found:

◘• 38 percent of U.S. adults (53 percent of people 50 and older) reported using alternative medicine at some point in their lives.

• Herbal products or dietary supplements were used most commonly.

• 22 percent used massage therapy, chiropractic manipulation, and other bodywork, but few used mind/body practices like meditation.

◘• More women than men used alternative medicine, especially herbal products or dietary supplements.

Taking all these into consideration, there is an ongoing effort to integrate alternatives into conventional medical practice. There are now many centers for such integrative medicine and most American medical schools offer courses in it.

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Many of these alternative modalities have been used for thousands of years in other countries. Ayurvedic medicine in India uses various herbal concoctions, vegetarian diet, exercise, body massages with medicinal oil, meditation and prayers. Chinese Medicine uses bioenergy manipulation, acupuncture, special herbs, etc. Homeopathy, osteopathy (manipulation of the bones and joints) and chelation therapy originated in the Western world. Native American Indians practice Shamanism and spiritualism. There are many more therapies like vitamin therapies, touch and talk therapy, etc.

While it is true that there is an exponential increase in the enthusiasm of these therapies among the public, it is important for all of us to know how effective and safe these treatments are.

Humans are always vulnerable. Looking for magical cures for illnesses, they often fall for appealing terms like holistic health practice, wellness revolution, nutritional supplements to boost immunity, natural therapy and so on. Some advertise "Bio identical hormone therapy designed to restore balance in women" so they can feel rejuvenated. I don't know if their claims can be properly validated. Some of these may help your body, many have placebo effect, but there are a few that can actually do harm to the body.

Medicine is both an art and a science, and science does have limitations.

In the ultimate analysis, every physician wants to relieve the sufferings of patients and make them better. If that would mean integrating alternate therapies to conventional medicine, then it is welcome. Although many physicians are skeptical, there is growing acceptance of alternatives within the medical community

Be well-informed about alternate therapies, especially herbal supplements, and make wise health decisions. And always let your treating physicians know if you are using alternatives. For information, see nccam.nih.gov on the web.

Dr. M.P. Ravindra Nathan, of Brooksville, is a retired cardiologist.


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