It wasn’t long ago that the term “alternative medicine” conjured up images more akin to sandal-wearing holistic healers than experienced physicians practicing leading-edge medicine. But as the popularity of alternative treatments has grown in past decades, so has their acceptance and credibility as effective therapies, especially when prescribed with traditional treatments.
Physicians now routinely advise taking dietary supplements, such as folic acid to prevent neural tube birth defects and vitamins and zinc to slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration. In addition, physicians often prescribe herbs and acupuncture as well as antibiotics, and health insurance companies increasingly reimburse for these alternative treatments.
Any use of alternative therapies is best done under the guidance of your physician. Here’s a look at some of the more common treatments that are making their way into the mainstream.
In acupuncture, small, fine needles are inserted into the skin at various points on the body. Originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, acupuncture is based on the idea that energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”), flows through the body along pathways called meridians. By stimulating specific points along the meridians, acupuncture is believed to balance the flow of qi, restoring health to the body and mind.
Because qi and meridians don’t correspond with known nerve or blood-circulation pathways, modern physicians have trouble pinning them down. However, these physicians believe acupuncture points stimulate the central nervous system to release body chemicals—such as endorphins, hormones and opioids—which act as painkillers, change the experience of pain or stimulate the body’s immune system.
Thousands of physicians, dentists and acupuncturists use the technique for the relief and prevention of pain and for various other health conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health. Promising research shows acupuncture can be effective in reducing nausea and vomiting after surgery and chemotherapy. Other conditions in which acupuncture may be useful include drug addiction, dental pain, stroke rehabilitation, headache, menstrual cramps, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and asthma.
Hypnosis is a state of altered consciousness, similar to the trancelike state you may experience when completely absorbed in a book or deep thought. When a qualified expert induces hypnosis, you experience deep relaxation in which you can focus your attention on a specific thought, memory or sensation and block out distractions. This relaxation can reduce fear, stress and anxiety. You’re also more responsive to suggestions, which can be helpful when you’re trying to change negative behaviors, such as smoking or overeating.
How hypnosis works is not entirely clear, but it seems to affect how your brain communicates with your body through nerve impulses, hormones and body chemicals. Some studies suggest hypnotherapy reduces pain associated with childbirth, irritable bowel syndrome, surgery, migraine headaches and dental work. It also may reduce chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, enhance infection-fighting ability, ease asthma symptoms and improve psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.
Massage therapy, which involves kneading and stroking the body’s soft tissues—your skin, muscles and tendons—is rooted in the ancient cultures of China, India, Persia, Egypt and others. The most common form practiced in the U.S. today is Swedish massage. Other styles include deep-tissue, sports and neuromuscular.
Massage therapists use their hands to manipulate the body’s soft tissues. The theory behind massage is that the manipulation raises the production of endorphins (body chemicals that ease pain and improve mood) and flushes wastes, such as lactic acid, from the muscles. Evidence suggests that massage stimulates the nerves, increases blood flow and oxygen supply to cells and aids lymph circulation. Many patients find the experience deeply relaxing, a state often enhanced by soothing music and dimmed lighting.
Some studies report that massage can decrease stress, anxiety, depression and pain; increase alertness; improve concentration; lower blood pressure; and aid insomnia and chronic fatigue. In addition, massage therapy often is used to relieve joint pain and stiffness, increase mobility, rehabilitate injured muscles and reduce head and back pain.
The power of mind relaxation
Many popular complementary therapies include some form of meditation that, combined with breathing techniques and exercises, works to improve your body, mind and spirit.
Here are two examples gaining broad endorsement:
This 5,000-year-old tradition combines breathing exercises with a series of postures. Some people practice yoga as a spiritual path; others, as a form of physical exercise to promote flexibility, strength and endurance. Regardless of your reasons, practicing yoga can help relieve stress, anxiety and pain. Studies found it reduces osteoarthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome pain and aids smoking cessation.
This ancient Chinese form of self-defense, which combines mental imagery, deep breathing and slow, fluid movements, is a low-impact exercise that people of all ages and fitness levels can enjoy. Practicing tai chi can relieve stress, boost mood, lower blood pressure, ease arthritis symptoms and improve balance, coordination, strength, energy, stamina and agility. Promising research shows it may help reduce anxiety and depression, increase bone mineral density and improve blood circulation in the legs. Studies of older adults found the exercise helps reduce falls.