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Alternative therapies: What’s worth exploring?

Lately it seems no matter what ails you, there’s an ad touting an herb, supplement, ancient ritual or mind-over-matter belief system that can “cure” it. These alternative therapies have become popular over the past decade because they offer a fresh approach to wellness and new ways of viewing the healing process.

Americans spend billions of dollars a year on alternative therapies—everything from vitamins to university-level instruction. Many doctors prescribe alternative therapy for patients, and many also use it themselves. In addition, alternative medicine is the subject of serious research. The National Institutes of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998 to determine how alternative therapies can be applied in the doctors’ offices and operating rooms of the 21st century.

Basic differences

Most Western doctors practice allopathic, or evidence-based, medicine—built on what’s been scientifically proven to heal patients. Alternative medicine, or naturopathy, on the other hand, is founded on very little hard science. Instead, it taps into ancient practices, natural substances and Eastern beliefs in the oneness of mind and body.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some alternative therapies do work—often in ways not understood. For example, the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture, which uses needles to target specific “acupoints” on the body, has been shown to relieve pain, migraines and nausea from chemotherapy—though how this occurs isn’t known. And one alternative therapy from the 1970s—biofeedback, in which the mind “trains” muscles and bodily responses—is frequently used to ease pain, manage stress, reduce high blood pressure and help people stop smoking.

By eliminating saturated fats and providing high fiber, a well-balanced vegetarian diet can benefit the heart and help prevent and manage diabetes and high blood pressure. Chiropractic therapy, a form of manual massage that corrects bone and joint misalignments, is used by many to relieve lower-back pain. Eastern-based workouts such as tai chi and yoga improve heart health while reducing stress and yielding profound mental relaxation, much like meditation, music, imagery and prayer.

Today, healthcare providers are recognizing the ability of still other alternative therapies to enhance conventional therapy. Here are a few that may be worth asking your physician about:

  • TENS stimulation relieves many types of musculoskeletal pain with timed low-voltage electric pulses.
  • Hypnotherapy harnesses the power of suggestion to provide pain relief, relieve emotional distress and break addictions.
  • Aston-Patterning massage and Alexander technique are nonstrenuous routines that teach fitness, movement training and reflex control to relieve stress and pain.
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, in which patients breathe pure oxygen at various pressure levels, is effective therapy for nonhealing wounds, burns and gangrene.

Herbal alternatives

Of course, no discussion of alternative therapies would be complete without a look at herbal supplements, some of which have demonstrated at least some medicinal value. For example, black cohosh has an estrogen-like effect that may relieve menstrual cramps. Cayenne cream appears to ease pain in joints close to the skin’s surface, such as the fingers, knees and elbows. Garlic supplements containing allicin may help lower cholesterol and prevent clots. And ginger can help quell motion sickness and nausea. But before you run to the health food store to stock up, remember that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not established dosages to ensure safety and/or effectiveness. And many herbs have hidden dangers. Black cohosh, for example, should not be taken by pregnant women as it may cause miscarriage. For its part, garlic is contraindicated for people taking blood thinners, including aspirin. The message: Don’t assume that herbs are safe because they are “natural.” Always talk to your doctor first.

Proceeding with caution

To use alternative therapies safely, follow these guidelines:

  • Get checked. Before undertaking any alternative therapy, get a checkup to determine your medical condition. Ask your doctor’s views on any therapy you may be considering.
  • Be real. Set a specific, attainable goal. Arthritis relief, weight loss, better nutrition or better emotional health may be reasonable.
  • Gather information. Consult reliable sources to learn more about alternative therapies. Scientific articles, peer-reviewed health journals and Web sites affiliated with respected medical institutions are credible. Health store clerks, know-it-alls and publications in the supermarket checkout aisle are not.
  • Consider it a complement. View alternative therapies as an adjunct to support your wellness or to improve your response to drugs or treatment. Discuss potential alternative therapies with your physician to help avoid complications.