Navigating complementary and alternative health options

When it comes to our complicated medical and health worlds, there are many questions to ask and a confusing morass of information and suggestions. Even the terms are confusing, such as complementary, alternative and integrative medicine. While these terms are often used to mean the array of healthcare approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people.

Many Americans — nearly 40 percent — use healthcare approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine for specific conditions or overall well-being. When describing health approaches with non-mainstream-roots, people often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts.

“Complementary” generally refers to using a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine. “Alternative” refers to using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine. True alternative medicine is not common. Most people use non-mainstream approaches along with conventional treatments. And the boundaries between complementary and conventional medicine overlap and change with time. For example, guided imagery and massage, both once considered complementary or alternative, are used regularly in some hospitals to help with pain management and stress reduction.

The array of non-mainstream healthcare approaches may also be considered part of integrative medicine or integrative healthcare. For example, cancer treatment centers with integrative healthcare programs may offer services such as acupuncture and meditation to help manage symptoms and side effects for patients who are receiving conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

There are various definitions for “integrative healthcare,” but many individuals, healthcare providers, and healthcare systems are integrating various practices with origins outside of mainstream medicine into treatment and health promotion. Still, the scientific evidence on some of these practices is limited, and a lack of reliable data makes it difficult for people to make informed decisions about using integrative health care.

“Natural” products, and mind and body options

This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements.

Interest in and use of natural products has grown considerably in the past few decades. The most commonly used natural product among adults is fish oil/omega 3s (reported in surveys by 37.4 percent of all adults who said they used natural products). Popular products for children include Echinacea and fish oil/omega 3s.

Some of these products have been studied in large, placebo-controlled trials, many of which have failed to show anticipated effects. Research on others to determine whether they are effective and safe is ongoing. While there are indications that some may be helpful, more needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the human body and about their safety and potential interactions with medicines and with other natural products.

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. For example:

  • Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body — most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.
  • Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners manually manipulate the soft tissues of the body.
  • Most meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or transcendental meditation, involve ways in which a person learns to focus attention.
  • Movement therapies include a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches; examples include Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercisesguided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, are designed to produce the body’s natural relaxation response.
  • Spinal manipulation is practiced by healthcare professionals such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, naturopathic physicians, physical therapists, and some medical doctors. Practitioners perform spinal manipulation by using their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used.
  • Tai chi and qi gong are practices from traditional Chinese medicine that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus.
  • The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.

There’s an abundance of information on all-things-healthy to explore, digest, practice, or disregard. If you take the time to explore carefully, keep an open mind, and talk with professionals, friends and associates, you can start to hone in on healthcare practices that are appropriate and safe.

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