Alternative Medicine Alternative Medicine by Joe Grodjesk Sociology Of Medicine Professor Buban May 5, 2001 Alternative Medicine Throughout recorded history, people of various cultures have relied on what Western medical practitioners today call alternative medicine. The term alternative medicine covers a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies. It generally describes those treatments and health care practices that are outside mainstream Western health care. People use these treatments and therapies in a variety of ways. Alternative therapies used alone are often referred to as alternative; when used in combination with other alternative therapies, or in addition to conventional therapies they are referred to as complementary.
Some therapies are far outside the realm of accepted Western medical theory and practice, but some, like chiropractic treatments, are now established in mainstream medicine. Worldwide, only an estimated ten to thirty percent of human health care is delivered by conventional, biomedically-oriented practitioners (Fields of Practice). The remaining seventy to ninety percent ranges from self-care according to folk principles, to care given in an organized health care system based on alternative therapies (Fields of Practice). Many cultures have folk medicine traditions that include the use of plants and plant products. In ancient cultures, people methodically collected information on herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into the twentieth century much of the pharmacology of scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of native peoples. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin: one-quarter of the prescription drugs dispensed by community pharmacies in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material (Fields of Practice). Twenty years ago, few physicians would have advised patients to take folic acid to prevent birth defects, vitamin E to promote a healthy heart, or vitamin C to bolster their immune systems. Yet today, doctor and patient alike know of the lifesaving benefits of these vitamins. Twenty years ago, acupuncture, guided imagery, and therapeutic touch were considered outright quackery.
Now, however, in clinics and hospitals around the country, non-traditional therapies are gaining wider acceptance as testimonials and studies report success using them to treat such chronic maladies as back pain and arthritis. The number of people availing themselves of these alternative therapies is staggering. In 1991 about twenty-one million Americans made four hundred and twenty-five million visits to practitioners of these types of alternative medicine; more than the estimated three hundred and eighty-eight million visits made to general practitioners that year (Apostolides). The U.S. Department of Education has accredited more than twenty acupuncture schools and more than thirty medical schools now offer courses in acupuncture (Lombardo; Smith).
As the number of Western medical institutions researching alternative therapies increases, the legitimacy of at least some alternative therapies will also increase. Does all this recent medical establishment attention mean that the non-conventional therapies really work? Critics say a definitive scientific answer must await well-designed experiments involving many patients. Up to now, most of the studies have relied on personal observation and anecdotal testimony from satisfied patients. The official position of the American Medical Association (A.M.A.)–alternative medicine’s chief critic–is that a patient’s improvement or recovery after alternative treatment might just as well be incidental to the action taken. This may be true for scientists and researchers, but the fact is that the people seeking alternative treatments disagree. The solution is obvious: more research needs to be conducted.
Some alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, have impressive histories dating back thousands of years. In America, professional and public interest in the field of alternative care has grown to such an extent that, in 1992, the U.S. government established the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Its mission is to speed the discovery, development, and validation of potential treatments to complement our current healthcare system. One of the OAM’s first tasks was to develop a classification system for the dozens of various therapies and practices.
The systems of alternative medical practice the OAM has classified so far share many common therapeutic techniques. Traditional oriental medicine and naturopathic medicine, for example, both use herbal remedies, acupuncture, and mind/body control. However, some alternative systems, such as environmental medicine and homeopathic medicine are distinct and separate. Following are some the more popular alternative therapies Americans use. Acupuncture Acupuncture is an example of a therapy once considered bizarre which has some scientific basis. An integral part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years, it is based on the belief that energy, which the Chinese call Qi (pronounced ‘chee’), circulates along meridians in the body in the same way that blood flows (Furman).
A diagram of the meridian system looks similar to those of our circulatory and nervous systems (Crute). When the flow of energy becomes blocked, an imbalance is created, resulting in pain or disease. To restore the proper balance and energy flow, acupuncturists stimulate specific points of the body along these meridians. Puncturing the skin with a needle is the usual method, but acupuncturists may also stimulate the acupuncture points with finger-pressure. Although Western physicians and researchers do not truly understand the concept of Qi, there is evidence that acupuncture can influence the movement or release of many chemicals in the body.
Research conducted by Dr. Bruce Pomeranz, a neurophysiologist at the University of Toronto, established that acupuncture releases naturally produced, morphine-like substances called endorphins (Crute). In addition to releasing endorphins, doctors and clinicians know that acupuncture can provide at least short-term relief for a wide range of pains by inhibiting the transmission of pain impulses through the nerves. Furthermore, recent studies also show acupuncture to be effective in alleviating bronchial asthma, bronchitis, and stroke-induced paralysis (Apostolides). I’m a healthy skeptic, says Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Mary McCaul (Apostolides). But look, we don’t have all the answers.
Patients who choose acupuncture feel calmer. Even if it’s a placebo effect, placebos are powerful things. Mind-Body Healing Relaxation techniques like meditation and biofeedback–which teach patients to control heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and other involuntary functions through concentration–have also given respectability to alternative medicine and are ro …