Complementary and Alternative Medicine – Is it Worth it?

Having suffered my entire life from allergies (asthma and rhinitis) and for more than thirty years from eczema, food intolerance and its various symptoms, I naturally tried to seek help from health practitioners outside the conventional medical care. From natural to traditional as well as mind-body healing practices, I tried a good number of complementary and alternative medicines with mixed success. My personal experience has made me somewhat sceptical but I have to admit that not all of them were totally useless. Throughout this blog, I will try to revisit my encounters with various alternative practitioners and what transpired. It will hopefully provide an indication of what to expect for any reader who considers turning to alternative medicine for help.

Alternative medicine can also be called complementary medicine, integrative medicine, or holistic medicine. These appellations can be used interchangeably but there are nuances between them. Here are some definitions:

‘Alternative medicine is any practice that is put forward as having the healing effects of medicine, but is not based on evidence gathered with the scientific method.’[i] Alternative treatments are used in lieu of conventional treatments.

‘Complementary medicine is alternative medicine used together with conventional medical treatment in a belief, not proven by using scientific methods, that it “complements” the treatment.’[ii]

‘Integrative medicine is medicine that integrates the therapies of alternative medicine with those practiced by mainstream medical practitioners.’[iii]

‘Holistic medicine is the art and science of healing that addresses care of the whole person – body, mind, and spirit.’[iv]

Before the 1910 Flexner Report, medical schools in North America incorporated alternative medicine as part of their curricula. Flexner, who doubted the validity of any medicine other than science based, urged medical schools to drop courses such as naturopathy, chiropractic and homeopathy or lose recognition and support from the state. Since then the debate has raged between proponents of complementary and alternative medicine and their detractors.

The case against complementary and alternative medicine

Most of the scientific-based medical rhetoric asserts that ‘there is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.’[v]

Another article in the same year argues that ‘…There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work.’[vi] I have italicised the last part, which obviously refers to alternative medicine, to mention, on the other hand, that according to a review in the International Journal of Technology Assessment in Healthcare, ‘approximately 20 per cent of standard medical procedures have no effect and an equal proportion had insufficient evidence to make a determination of efficacy.’[vii] This time the statement refers to evidence-based medicine.

There is the argument that complementary and alternative medicine has no side effects because it uses only natural substances as opposed to chemically invasive drugs. However, natural doesn’t necessarily mean harmless; there is nothing more natural than a toxic fungus. I am not implying that CAM practitioners are using poisonous mushrooms as remedy; it’s just an extreme example of something natural AND deadly.

Complementary and alternative medicine is dangerous because it is unregulated and its remedies untested scientifically. Anybody can appoint themselves a practitioner working out of their home after gaining a qualification with a weekend course. The critics of complementary and alternative medicine will give you ample examples of cases where death occurred after chiropractic manipulation, or toxic herbal preparation, or delayed proper medical treatment. Nevertheless, being regulated and scientifically proven does not make evidence-based medicine safer than complementary and alternative medicine. ‘WHO  [the World Health Organisation] puts medical errors as among the top 10 killers in the world. According to the US’s Institute of Medicine, preventable medical errors kill 98,000 people in the US alone each year and injure countless more.’[viii]

I could carry on forever with these claims and counter-claims on both sides of the argument. These people (the opponents and proponents of alternative medicine) are at each other’s throat for a reason called business competition. The big pharmaceutical companies want to protect their monopoly on state approved and funded healthcare by whatever means. While ‘The global alternative medicine sector is expected to reach close to $115 billion by 2015, according to Global Industry Analysts. Around 75% of the population in emerging nations receive alternative medical healthcare, compared with over half of the population of developed nations.’[ix] Despite the war waged by its detractors, this CAM business is gaining recognition among universities, the insurance sector and even with medical doctors.

As long term chronic patients we ought not take sides with either of the antagonists at the risk of losing sight of the main goal which is seeking relief from our ailments. It shouldn’t matter whether a treatment is modern, age-old, evidence based, natural, scientific or empirical as long as it provides that relief. Anybody with a chronic illness will tell you that they have first sought help with their GP (medical doctor) before resorting to complementary and alternative medicine. If you are considering trying natural medicine you will need to tread very carefully because of the vast number of practices that exist. In my experience, the main disadvantage is the out-of-pocket expenses especially when the outcome of the treatment is disappointing. Whatever you do, do not discard your existing medical treatment and make sure you let your GP know. Here is a link to a fact sheet about selecting a CAM practitioner:
http://nccam.nih.gov/health/decisions/practitioner.htm



[ii]  Id.

[iv] Source: American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) http://www.holisticmedicine.org

[v] Fontanarosa, P.B. (1998) The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Source: Wikipedia.

[vi] Angell, M.; Kassirer, J.P. (1998) The New England Journal of Medicine. Source: Wikipedia.

[vii] International journal of technology assessment in health care (2001). Source: Wikipedia.


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