Alternative medicine is defined as any health practice that takes the place of, or is incompatible with, conventional Western medicine. Distinction must be made between alternative medicine and complementary medicine. Complementary medicine may involve nontraditional medical practices, but is undertaken along with traditional healing approaches. Alternative medicine implies using only nontraditional methods.
Alternative medicine includes a broad range of practices. Some healing therapies are based on Ancient Chinese beliefs, like acupuncture and the use of certain herbal compounds. Others focus on Hindu, or Ayurvedic, therapies including diet changes, the practice of yoga, and emphasizing the connection of mind, body, and spirit.
Mind, body, and spirit healing is also championed as holistic health, and can be alternative or complementary. Dr. Deepak Chopra, for example, practices medicine in this way, leaning more toward alternative than conventional thinking, although he holds a Western medical degree. His teachings have been hotly contested in the medical community.
Some other examples of alternative medicine include massage, meditation, chiropractic techniques and practice, spiritual healing, exercise practices like Tai Chi, and aromatherapy. This is just a short list of an almost inexhaustible supply of alternative therapies. Many people use some form of alternative medicine when they take vitamins or herbal supplements without consulting a doctor. For example, many people who contract a cold use Airborne, a nutritional supplement, instead of seeing a doctor. With no traditional medical advice, the user of Airborne practices alternative medicine.
One problem with vitamins and herbal supplements used in alternative medicine is that most are classified as nutritional supplements. Since they are not classed as medication, they are not subject to the kind of scrutiny and testing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally uses. So while these supplements may claim results, the results do not have to be proved in clinical trials.
Ephedra, for example, was not given the same scrutiny as prescribed medications for weight loss. As such, there were no controls to determine whether taking ephedra could be dangerous. It did help some lose weight, but the cost was high. Once deaths began to occur from the use of ephedra, the FDA pulled it from the market. Beforehand, since ephedra was a nutritional supplement, the FDA did not test it and thus lost the chance to save some lives. Other herbal remedies have specific interactions with medications and may pose more danger.
Proponents of herbal therapy argue that the FDA has frequently missed things when testing “approved” drugs. The drugs Vioxx and Seroquel have recently been found to cause serious side effects, resulting in wrongful death and injury claims. There are numerous examples of the FDA approving drugs without lengthy testing, or approving drugs when the clinical results were manufactured or dubious.
Alternative practitioners can often point to thousands of years of anecdotal evidence that suggests certain alternative practices are successful. The Western medical community largely stands opposed to such practices, but as complementary medicine has advanced, there are now medical schools that teach “alternative” methods. Many physicians now embrace complementary medicine because it creates more options for addressing a medical condition.
Some people turn to alternative medicine when the traditional medical community can offer them no help or cure for a condition. Again, anecdotal evidence suggests that certain therapies may help to improve quality of life for these people. Western physicians acknowledge the more established methods of alternative medicine and recommend alternative therapies for patients they cannot help through traditional medicine. While some physicians remain skeptical, alternative medicine is often looked upon as a last resort strategy.
Unfortunately, most health insurance companies do not provide coverage of alternative medicine of any kind. If one is lucky, chiropractic care may be included in a health plan. Generally, though, one has to pay for acupuncture, yoga classes, nutritional supplements or any other alternative therapy. Caution should be observed when embarking on an alternative medicine health plan, because most governments do not regulate alternative practices, and as with traditional medicine, there are some unscrupulous or unqualified practitioners.