Alternative medicine is the practice of techniques to treat and prevent disease that are not generally accepted by conservative modern Western medicine. These techniques include homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, yoga, meditation, chiropractic, massage therapy, biofeedback, naturopathy, and many others. Although some of these forms such as yoga, meditation, and acupuncture have been practiced for centuries in many cultures, the U.S. medical community has been slow to acknowledge their benefits.
With an increased emphasis on disease prevention in recent years, many people have looked to alternative forms of medicine for drug-free approaches to achieving and maintaining good health. Alternative medicine allows people a measure of participation and control in their own well-being, as many of the practices can be taught and self-administered. Some people have turned to alternative medicine in search of treatment or cures for illnesses such as cancer, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), arthritis, and heart disease.
Relaxation techniques help promote sleep, reduce stress, and alleviate pain. Controlled breathing is the simplest form of relaxation and consists of sitting or lying in a quiet place and breathing slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth. An advantage of this technique is that, if needed, it can be performed at any time, in any location, to produce relaxation.
Progressive relaxation therapy is a method of relieving muscle tension. Quietly lying on one's back and focusing on a particular region of the body such as the face, the individual consciously relaxes the muscles in that area. Moving through each part of the body, the individual repeats the process until all the body's muscles are relaxed.
The ancient practice of yoga incorporates relaxation, deep breathing, and postures (placing the body in certain positions) to relieve stress, improve blood circulation, and strengthen the body. Regular practice of yoga has been shown to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of many ailments from depression to heart disease.
Meditation is a method of relaxation in which a person concentrates his mind on a single thing such as an image, a word or phrase repeated silently, or the pattern of his breath. Meditation is usually practiced in a sitting position with the eyes closed and the back held straight. Its immediate benefits are reduced stress and anxiety, lowered blood pressure, and a slower rate of breathing. The daily practice of meditation over a long period of time has been shown to strengthen the body's ability to fight disease.
Biofeedback is a relaxation technique in which an individual learns to consciously control certain body functions—for example, blood pressure. The individual is connected by electrodes to a machine that responds to body signals (blood pressure in this case) by beeping. Increased blood pressure results in a faster series of beeps, which slow as blood pressure decreases. As the beeps slow down, the person realizes that the blood pressure has decreased and tries to remember the relaxed state that created the change. The ultimate goal is to be able to recreate the relaxed state that lowered blood pressure—without the aid of signals. Biofeedback has been used to treat migraines, to improve digestion, to lower heart rate, and to relieve pain. It has also been used to regain some control of muscles in persons who are partially paralyzed.
Hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis to help a person gain control over stress, pain, and bad habits such as smoking and overeating. It is also sometimes used in medicine to block the sensation of pain during medical procedures and in psychotherapy to assist patients in recalling traumatic events. Under the guidance of a hypnotherapist, the person enters a trancelike state during which his subconscious mind responds to the suggestions of the therapist. The person can be taught to recreate the deeply relaxed state he experienced while under hypnosis and to use it on his own to overcome pain, control eating and smoking habits, and reduce stress.
Visualization and guided imagery are additional relaxation techniques that involve focusing the mind on specific images. With eyes closed, the person pictures in his mind a peaceful image or scene and concentrates on the sights, sounds, and smells that make the image soothing. Visualization is sometimes used as a supplemental treatment for patients with cancer or other serious and painful diseases. Guided by a therapist, the patient may visualize his body fighting the disease. This technique has been credited with bringing about physical healing in some cases.
Massage therapy is a method of achieving relaxation by applying pressure to and kneading the muscles of the body. Under the hands of a skilled massage therapist, this relaxation technique can temporarily relieve muscle tension and mental stress.
Chiropractic is a medical practice founded on the theory that human disease is caused by impaired nerve functioning. This impairment stems from the vertebrae of the spine shifting from their normal place and putting pressure on the spinal nerves. To treat a patient, the chiropractor massages and manipulates the vertebrae back to their proper position.
Holistic medicine is an approach to health care that takes into consideration the whole person in the treatment and prevention of disease. According to practitioners of the holistic approach, a person's physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual states must all be in harmony for optimal health. Many licensed doctors practice holistic medicine, and they may include alternative forms of therapy in place of or in addition to traditional forms in treating patients.
Herbal medicine uses herbal remedies composed of plant substances to treat illness. Herbs have been used for centuries in most cultures of the world, and many drugs used in modern Western medicine are derived from plants. Herbal remedies can be taken as capsules or as tinctures (plant extracts in alcohol). Fresh or dried herbs can be brewed for teas, applied directly, or mixed with water and used as pastes to treat skin disorders. Herbal remedies are often prescribed by alternative medical practitioners as part of a treatment program that includes proper diet, exercise, and relaxation techniques.
Homeopathy is a term derived from the Greek words meaning "similar suffering." A system of medicine developed over 200 years ago, homeopathy is based upon the principle that "like cures like." To treat a disease or disorder, the homeopath practitioner prescribes a remedy (an extract of plant, mineral, or animal substances) that produces the same symptoms the patient is experiencing. The remedy would make a healthy person sick, but in a sick person the remedy is thought to stimulate the body's natural defenses and promote healing.
In homeopathy, it is believed that each individual's illness is unique to that person, and both the person's physical and mental states are considered before prescribing a remedy. Like many other alternative medicine practices, homeopathy treats the body and mind as one; what affects one affects the other.
Acupuncture is a technique developed by the ancient Chinese in which very thin needles are inserted through the skin at specific points of the body to relieve pain, cure disease, or provide anesthesia for surgery. The technique is one element of traditional Chinese medicine, which also includes herbal remedies, massage therapy, and a healthful diet. Acupuncture is practiced in the United States by both medical doctors and licensed practitioners, although its use by physicians is mostly limited to pain relief.
According to Chinese belief, lines or channels of energy cover the body and flow through it. The presence of illness or disease indicates that the flow of energy is blocked. Inserting fine needles at precise points along the channels removes the blockage, restoring the free flow of energy and allowing the internal organs to correct imbalances in their functioning.
Acupressure, also called shiatsu in Japan, is an ancient Chinese method of improving a person's health by applying pressure to specific points on the body. Acupressure uses the same channels of energy flow as acupuncture but does not break the skin. Instead, the acupressure practitioner applies pressure using the fingertips or knuckles to loosen muscles and improve circulation.
Homeopathy is a respected and approved medical practice in parts of Europe, Latin America, India, Greece, South America, and South Africa. In the United States, homeopathy has only begun to be accepted by the mainstream medical community, with some physicians using it along with traditional medicine to treat their patients. The production of homeopathic remedies is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the remedies are available in many natural food stores.
Founded in the early part of the twentieth century, naturopathy is a system of healing disease using natural means. This drug-free method of treating patients relies on natural means such as manual manipulation, homeopathy, herbal medicine, hydrotherapy (water therapy), massage, exercise, and nutrition. The body's power to heal is acknowledged to be a powerful process that the practitioner, or naturopath, seeks to enhance using all-natural remedies that appear to help the patient.
Naturopaths are trained practitioners who diagnose and treat disease and are licensed in a number of states. They are specialists in preventive medicine who teach patients how to live in ways that maintain good health. Naturopaths sometimes work with physicians to help patients recover from major surgery. Although naturopathy is not widely accepted in the medical community, some physicians are also naturopaths.