Alternative therapy is any system or product that makes up a health practice, but is not considered to be a part of conventional or mainstream medicine. There are many different types of alternative medicine. Chiropractic focuses on the relationship between the body (especially the spine) and health. Proper alignment of the spine is important to maintain a healthy and functional body. Chiropractors use manipulation to realign the spine and restore health.
Dietary supplements are products intended to augment the diet, like vitamins, minerals, and herbs. The products come in many forms, such as tablets, liquids, and powders. In addition, supplements are sometimes incorporated into drinks and foods.
Acupuncture is an ancient practice. According to Chinese medicine, an energy force, called Qi flows through the body. Qi is conducted along several pathways, or meridians, throughout the body, regulating the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional forces called ying and yang. Ying and yang must be balanced to maintain health. Imbalance leads to disease or illness. Acupuncture involves the use of very thin needles inserted along the meridians to improve the flow of Qi and restore the balance of ying and yang.
A similar life force energy belief is the basis for a Japanese-based therapy, called Reiki. Ki is believed to be the life force that circulates and surrounds all living things. Low levels of this life force, or an interruption in its flow, can lead to illness.
Music therapy is the use of music to promote physical and mental health. It can be used to induce relaxation or reduce stress. The therapy can be active (such as beating a drum or dancing to music to reduce stress) or passive (listening to quiet music to distract patients during a procedure).
Art therapy uses different art media to allow patients to express themselves. The therapy can reduce anxiety, increase self-awareness, and assist a patient in working through emotional conflicts or trauma.
Integrating Alternative and Mainstream Therapies
Though alternative medicine is not well accepted by the medical community, many Americans use the treatments to maintain health or treat diseases. In studies of cancer patients, more than one-third report using at least one form of alternative medicine. The most common alternative therapies are herbs and nutritional supplements.
There are many reasons patients turn to alternative therapies. Patients sometimes believe conventional medical treatments aren't effective enough to fight life-threatening diseases, such as cancer. Alternative therapies are often seen as less "harmful to the body" or associated with fewer undesirable side effects.
Research suggests some types of alternative therapies may actually be beneficial. Acupuncture has been shown to reduce symptoms of several kinds of medical problems, such as headache, pain, and anxiety – although the scientific reasons for the benefit are poorly understood. Massage, imagery, hypnosis and other procedures can promote relaxation and reduce anxiety during painful or stressful medical procedures.
Some hospitals are now integrating alternative therapies into their conventional treatment programs. The merger allows patients to get both types of treatment at one place. It also provides a doorway to open discussion with the doctor about what forms of alternative therapy are best and which should be avoided (for example, certain herbs and supplements could be dangerous for patients receiving chemotherapy). Integration of therapies also allows doctors to study or keep a close eye on patients who choose alternative treatments.
For general information on alternative medicine: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Clearinghouse, PO Box 7923, Gaithersburg, MD 20898, http://nccam.nih.gov, (888) 644-6226