A Look at Alternative Therapies
“Opening a professional dialogue between physicians and practitioners of alternative medicine is crucial to better health care for those patients who choose alternative therapies.”
THAT statement was printed in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in its issue of November 11, 1998. The article stated: “This need [of dialogue] can be expected to grow with use of alternative therapies, particularly as health insurance plans include such therapies in the benefits they offer.”
More and more patients are employing alternative therapies while availing themselves of more conventional forms of treatment. Yet, some fail to keep their medical doctor informed of what they are doing. Therefore, Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter of April 2000 urged: “You should act in your best interest by working with your doctor rather than privately.” It added: “Whether he or she approves of your approach, you still stand to gain by sharing the information.”
This was said because of possible health risks when certain herbs are combined with conventional therapies. Recognizing that some of their patients are choosing alternative therapies, many health professionals strive not to allow their own opinions about health care to prevent them from working along with alternative therapists for the benefit of the patient.
To give our readers an idea of alternative therapies now used by growing numbers of people in many countries, we are providing a brief description of a few of them. Please note, however, that Awake! does not endorse any of these or any other form of medical treatment.
These remedies are perhaps the most common form of alternative medicine. Despite the use of herbs in medicine throughout the centuries, only a relatively small number of plant species have been carefully studied by scientists. An even smaller number of plants and their extracts have been studied so thoroughly that information is available on their safety and efficacy. The majority of information about herbs is based on experience from their historical use.
In recent years, however, there have been a number of scientific studies that show the usefulness of certain herbs in treating such conditions as mild depression, age-related memory loss, and symptoms of benign prostate enlargement. One herb that has been studied is black cohosh, which is sometimes known as black snakeroot, bugbane, or rattleroot. American Indians boiled the root and used it in connection with menstrual problems and childbirth. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch of April 2000, recent studies suggest that a standardized German commercial black cohosh extract may be effective “in relieving menopausal symptoms.”
It seems that much of the demand for such natural remedies is based on the perception that they are safer than synthetic drugs. While this may often be true, some herbs are associated with side effects, especially if they are used in combination with other medications. For example, a popular herb that is promoted as a natural decongestant and weight-loss product can increase blood pressure and heart rate.
There are also herbs that will increase the rate at which a patient bleeds. If these herbs are used in combination with “blood-thinning” medical drugs, serious problems can result. People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or those taking other medications should be careful about using herbal remedies.—See the accompanying box.
Another concern with herbal remedies is the lack of consistent quality assurance in their production. In recent years there have been reports of products tainted with heavy metals and other contaminants. Additionally, some herbal products have been found to contain little or none of the ingredients on the label. These examples stress the need to buy herbal products, as well as any other health products, from reputable and reliable sources.
Dietary supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, have reportedly been helpful in preventing and treating a number of health problems, including anemia and osteoporosis—and even in preventing some birth defects. Government-recommended daily doses of vitamins and minerals are considered to be relatively safe and useful.
On the other hand, megadoses promoted for the treatment of some illnesses may be hazardous to health. They can possibly interfere with the absorption or activity of other nutrients and can also cause serious side effects. This possibility, as well as the lack of substantial evidence supporting the use of megavitamins, should not be ignored.
Homeopathy was developed in the 1700’s as a kinder, gentler type of treatment than those in popular use at the time. Homeopathy is based on the principle that “like cures like” and on the minimum-dose theory. Homeopathic remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a healing agent—at times, diluting it so much that not even one molecule of the original material remains.
Nonetheless, when compared with the use of a placebo, homeopathic remedies were found to have some effect in treating such things as asthma, allergies, and childhood diarrhea. Homeopathic products are considered quite safe, since they are so diluted. An article published in the March 4, 1998, issue of JAMA observed: “For many patients suffering from chronic problems that lack a specific diagnosis, homeopathy may be an important and useful treatment option. If used within its limits, homeopathy could complement modern medicine as, ‘another tool in the bag.’” In potentially life-threatening emergencies, however, it may be wiser to use more conventional medical treatments.
There are a number of alternative therapies using body manipulation. Chiropractic is among the most commonly used alternative treatments, especially in the United States. It is based on the idea that healing can be promoted when spinal misalignments are corrected. This is why chiropractors specialize in spinal manipulation to adjust the vertebrae of their patients.
Conventional medicine is not always able to provide relief of lower back discomfort. On the other hand, some patients who receive chiropractic treatments report a high degree of satisfaction. Evidence to support the use of chiropractic manipulation for conditions other than pain is scarce.
Significantly, there is a low incidence of side effects with chiropractic manipulation by a skilled practitioner. Yet, at the same time, a person should be aware that neck manipulation is associated with a risk of serious complications, including stroke and paralysis. To reduce the risk of complications, some experts recommend that a person have a thorough examination to see if a specific manipulation style is safe for him.
The benefits of massage have long been recognized in almost all cultures. Its use is even reported on in the Bible. (Esther 2:12) “Massage techniques play an important part in traditional Chinese and Indian medical care,” observed the British Medical Journal (BMJ) of November 6, 1999. “European massage was systematised in the early 19th century by Per Henrik Ling, who developed what is now known as Swedish massage.”
Massage is credited with relaxing the muscles, improving circulation of the blood, and removing toxins that have accumulated in the tissues. Doctors now prescribe massage for such ailments as back pain, headaches, and digestive disorders. Most people who receive massage comment on how good it makes them feel. According to Dr. Sandra McLanahan, “eighty percent of disease is stress-related, and massage reduces stress.”
“Most massage techniques have a low risk of adverse effects,” reported BMJ. “Contraindications to massage are based largely on common sense (for example, avoiding friction on burns or massage in a limb with deep vein thrombosis) . . . There is no evidence that massage in patients with cancer increases metastatic spread.”
“As massage becomes more mainstream, consumers are becoming concerned about a massage therapist’s credentials, and they should be,” noted E. Houston LeBrun, past president of the American Massage Therapy Association. BMJ advised that to avoid unprofessional behavior, “patients should ensure that practitioners are registered with an appropriate regulatory body.” A report last year noted that therapists were licensed in 28 states in the United States.
Acupuncture is a healing technique that has become quite popular throughout the world. While the term “acupuncture” covers several different techniques, it most commonly involves the use of fine needles inserted into specific areas of the body to achieve a therapeutic response. Research over the past several decades suggests that acupuncture may work in some cases by releasing neurochemicals, such as endorphins, which can help relieve pain and inflammation.
Some research suggests that acupuncture may be effective in treating quite a number of ailments and that it is a safe alternative to the use of anesthetics. The World Health Organization recognizes the use of acupuncture in the treatment of 104 conditions. And a committee selected by the U.S. National Institutes of Health cited evidence that acupuncture is an acceptable therapy in the treatment of postoperative pain, muscle pain, menstrual cramps, and nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy or pregnancy.
While serious side effects are rare with acupuncture, individuals may experience a sensation of soreness, numbness, or tingling. Proper sterilization of needles or the use of disposable needles can minimize the risk of infection. Many acupuncturists lack the medical skills needed to make a proper diagnosis or to recommend other more appropriate therapies. It would be unwise to ignore this lack of diagnostic skills, especially if choosing acupuncture to help relieve the symptoms of chronic conditions.
The Choices Are Numerous
The foregoing provides only a sampling of the many therapies that are now commonly referred to as alternative in some places. In the future some of these, as well as others not reviewed here, may well be considered conventional, even as they already are in some parts of the world. Others, of course, may fall into disuse or even disrepute.
Unfortunately, pain and sickness are very much a part of the human experience, even as the Bible so accurately states: “We know that all creation keeps on groaning together and being in pain together until now.” (Romans 8:22) It is only to be expected that humans would seek relief. But where can we turn? Please consider some observations that may be of help to you in your choice of medical treatment.
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Combining Herbs With Medicines—WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
Often the public has been warned against taking certain prescription drugs in combination or taking them with alcoholic beverages. Is there also a danger in taking particular herbs along with prescription medications? How common is this practice?
An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association spoke of “the simultaneous use of prescription medications with herbs.” It noted: “Among the 44% of adults who said they regularly take prescription medications, nearly 1 (18.4%) in 5 reported the concurrent use of at least 1 herbal product, a high-dose vitamin, or both.” It is important to be informed about the possible dangers of such a practice.
Those taking certain herbal products should also be concerned when undergoing a medical procedure requiring anesthesia. Dr. John Neeld, president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, explained: “There are anecdotal reports that some popular herbs, including ginseng and St. John’s wort, can cause wide swings in blood pressure. That could be very dangerous during anesthesia.”
This doctor added: “Others, such as ginkgo biloba, ginger and feverfew, can interfere with blood clotting, a particular hazard during epidural anesthesia—if there’s bleeding near the spinal cord, it could cause paralysis. St. John’s wort can also intensify the effects of some narcotic or anesthetic drugs.”
Clearly, it is vital to know about the potential danger of taking particular herbs and medicines in combination. Pregnant and nursing women should especially be aware of the possible harm that their offspring may suffer as a result of the combination of certain herbs and medicines. Patients, therefore, are encouraged to discuss with their health-care provider what medications they take, whether these be alternative or otherwise.
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Certain herbs have been useful in treating health problems
© Bill Johnson/Visuals Unlimited
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For the best results, patients and health-care professionals need to work together