A basic principle behind many kinds of alternative medicine is balance.Acupuncture, tai chi, and various forms of energy medicine are designed to bring the body into balance, which in theory, can help restore health.
This principle of balance is an important one to keep in mind when considering alternative medicine for yourself or a loved one. There are many benefits of using complementary and alternative medicine for a wide variety of conditions, but there are also things to be cautious of. Before trying out any new therapy, it is a good idea to consider the pros and cons.
Alternative Medicine: Pros
Recently, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reported that about 38 percent of U.S. adults and about 12 percent of children are using some form of alternative medicine. Here are some of the reasons:
- Whole-person treatments. Traditional medicine views disease as a distinct entity from the person who carries it. The growing trend toward specialization in medicine has led to many treatment advances, but also has distanced physicians from the “healthy” parts of their patients. A key difference between traditional and alternative medicine is that most forms of alternative medicine emphasize whole-body care. Practitioners of alternative medicine address not just the physical body but also the patient’s emotional and spiritual health. According to the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, a growing interest in a more holistic approach to health is one of the main reasons alternative medicine is on the rise.
- Personal attention. Because of the emphasis on whole-body care, alternative medicine practitioners often offer patients a great deal of personal attention. Traditional physicians can be strapped for time and pressured by insurance companies and packed waiting rooms. Alternative medicine practitioners, because of different philosophies and fee structures, typically place greater emphasis on one-on-one attention.
- Focus on prevention. Another draw to alternative medicine is its focus on prevention. Whereas traditional medicine tends to intervene once disease is present, many types of alternative medicine encourage patients to have “well visits,” treatments that are focused on preventing disease before it occurs, in addition to being cared for when sick.
Alternative Medicine: Cons
Before trying a new kind of alternative medicine, there are some key factors to keep in mind. The following concerns should not prevent you or a loved one from using alternative medicine, but offer more information in the decision-making process.
- Limited scientific research. In response to increased consumer demand, funding for research studies on alternative medicine is growing. But compared with traditional medical methods, evidence is still limited, which has left many questions unanswered. Currently, there are several studies under way. In order to learn about ongoing studies on alternative medicine, NCCAM recommends asking your primary care physician or other health care provider, visiting the "Research" link on the NCCAM site, or going to your local library and inquiring about scientific journals or online resources.
- Confusing marketing. It’s easy to confuse the words “natural” and “safe” — but the two are not synonymous, despite some marketers’ attempts to make us think otherwise. Many dietary supplements and herbal remedies, both of which fall under the alternative medicine umbrella, are mislabeled as “natural.” A red flag should also go up if a manufacturer makes unrealistic claims that their products are “miracle cures” or have “secret ingredients.”
- Potentially dangerous interactions. Even in cases when the product contains no artificial substances, supplements and herbs can still potentially interact with prescription and over-the-counter medication. And some of these natural products have side effects of their own.
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