Alternative Medicine 101

A state of well-being refers to more than the condition of your body. While it is essential to keep your body in as good shape as possible, there is a growing awareness by many people of the benefits of caring for their spiritual and mental health as well. If you are interested in improving your spiritual and mental fitness in addition to keeping your body healthy, you may find that alternative medicine, also known as nontraditional health care, can help you to achieve your goal. Among the questions most often asked about alternative medicine are:

What is meant by "alternative medicine?" Alternative medicine refers to the branch of health care whose practitioners take into account the spiritual and mental health of patients along with their physical state while carrying out a diagnosis. This is known as a whole mind-body or holistic approach that complements rather than competes with the more conventional forms of medical treatment. Many practitioners of traditional medicine acknowledge the benefits of alternative medicine treatments. Some of the well-known alternative medicine treatments include:

Acupuncture: a type of pain relief in which thin needles are inserted through the skin in various areas of the body.

Chiropractic practices: in which the practitioner works to ease pain by manipulating and adjusting the patient's spine as well as other parts of the body.

Herbal medicine: a type of medicine that uses plants including agrimony, prescribed for conditions including muscle tension, indigestion and swelling.

Mind-body techniques: examples include yoga, meditation, visualization, relaxation, and hypnotherapy and talk therapy.

Should alternative medicine be used?

For many people who choose to seek the help of alternative medicine practitioners, good health means more than being free of physical disease. In addition to the physical condition of the body, it relates to the spiritual and mental well-being of the person. Reasons for using alternative medicine could include:

Believing in the value of using medicine that offers quality and potentially healing treatment, whether or not the medicine is regarded as conventional.

Feeling dissatisfied with conventional medical treatment.

Understanding that everyone is different and that people respond to medical treatment in various ways.

Feeling concerned about the possibility of undiscovered, long-term side effects of prescription drugs such as antibiotics.

Realizing that there are often easy ways to work towards the prevention of such problems as heart diseases and stroke by making changes to your lifestyle that could be as simple as altering your diet, taking up exercise or taking steps to reduce any stress you are experiencing.

Accepting that it is better to prevent a disease than to have to cure it.

Recognizing the benefits to physical, spiritual and mental health that can result from practices such as yoga, tai chi, deep breathing and meditation.

How do conventional and alternative medicines differ? While conventional and alternative medicines both have the goal of curing people, they have different approaches to treating symptoms. In alternative medicine, the practitioner takes a holistic approach, considering the physical, spiritual and mental health of the patient. In seeking to cure the patient, an alternative medicine practitioner will also frequently work to energize the person's immune system so that the body's own restorative abilities can help with the healing.

In conventional medicine, there is a tendency to prescribe medications that will affect the symptoms quickly. This medication often involves the use of manufactured drugs whose short-term side effects are already known. Their long-term effects are often not well known. Unlike conventional medicine, alternative medicine prefers to get the body's immune system working with the use of natural products, such as zinc, whose side effects are generally considered to be less serious than the side effects experienced by conventional medicine users.

Often, however, the best results can be achieved by using alternative medicine in conjunction with conventional medicine, especially if your condition necessitates immediate treatment. In such cases conventional medicine can achieve the quick results required while alternative medicine can work long-term to bring about more lasting healing.

Can you be confident that it is safe to use alternative medicine? Alternative medicine has been used in many parts of the world for many years. It is quite possible that some alternative medications now being used in the United States and not yet tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration could have been tested already in other countries. A lot of the practices and medicines that are regarded as nontraditional had their origins in the traditional medicines of Europe, Asia, Africa and America and have become extremely popular in many countries. It should also be remembered when considering alternative medicine that it offers many noninvasive therapies, relating to physical, spiritual and mental health, that require no taking of medication.

You can help to make the use of alternative medicine safer by:

Ensuring your practitioner is licensed by a recognized medical association or by the state, which means you can obtain details about the practitioner's professional background from the licensing board if you wish to do so.

Checking that your practitioner has either received training in both alternative and traditional medicine, or is able to use a variety of alternative therapies, and is a person with whom you feel confident you can communicate effectively.

Telling your practitioner about any current treatment you are receiving, and discussing the safety of the treatment proposed for you before you agree to it.

Purchasing your medicines from dependable outlets only, and heeding any instructions provided on dosage as well as information about drug interactions and active and inactive ingredients.

Is alternative medicine covered by health insurance? Alternative treatments such as massage and chiropractic therapy are covered by some health plans but alternative medications are treated as over-the-counter traditional medication transactions. With the demand for alternative medications growing, however, some health insurers are providing an increasing amount of information about them and may even make it possible for you to receive discounts on alternative medications.

Ways to use alternative medicine wisely include:

Get the advice of a practitioner rather than trying to treat yourself.

Ask your doctor and/or your health insurer for advice about choosing an alternative medicine practitioner.

Increase your own knowledge before using alternative medicines by talking to your doctor and health insurer as well as looking up information on the internet and consulting books in health food stories, book shops and libraries.

Keep yourself informed even after starting alternative medicine treatment so that you are aware of how it should be helping you and can observe how effective it is.