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Would You Care For Some CAM With That Coumadin?

It’s a great week for calm, matter-of-fact disclosure and acceptance, and not just for the American military.  It’s time, then,  to accept that alternative medicine,an approach getting more popular by the day – some 40 percent of us use it – is here in the States to stay.  Most of our friends already have their favorite therapies and cures: Rescue Remedy, garlic tea, acupuncture, Ayurvedic meal plans, yoga, lifestyle counseling.  Does any of it make sense?

Yes.  But let’s sort out the language first.  Western doctors, who are learning more and more about different approaches to treatment and healing all the time, call ‘alternative medicine‘ those practices not generally used in conventional Western medicine.  ‘Complementary medicine‘ is the term used when an alternative medicine therapy is used along with – not instead of  – conventional therapy and treatment.  Another name for this combination of the two systems is ‘integrative medicine‘.   ‘CAM‘ is the acronym applied to complementary and alternative medicine.  Still with us?

How your own traditional Western doctor looks at the world of integrative medicine might well depend on his or her age, or even where he or she went to medical school.  Many fine doctors practicing today did not receive any training at all in CAM approaches and therapies.  They may be reluctant to even talk about any of it with you because they simply do not know enough about that world.

Keep in mind, too, that Western physicians are trained to value therapies that have been thoroughly researched and scientifically tested and re-tested for safety and efficacy.  Many CAM therapies have no such pedigrees.  And some alternative practitioners make elaborately over-the-top claims for their treatments and suggest completely forgoing conventional (but proven) therapies.  This is the sort of snake oil salesman stuff that turns many doctors away from CAM altogether.

There are a handful of CAM therapies backed by solid scientific evidence, but only a handful.  One major problem for complementary and alternative treatments is that there is little deep-pocket funding for the large, scrupulously controlled studies that conventional drugs and procedures enjoy.  Without these resources, generally secured from large drug companies or government grants, it is difficult to test and evaluate CAM treatments.  Still, many such studies are under way.  The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is the number one US agency that supports such research and it makes it findings available on its website: NCCAM

If you are thinking about complementary and alternative treatments, be sure to talk with your regular physician about them – so what if he or she scolds you about it.  Granted, he or she may not be able, or willing, to recommend a specific approach, but your doctor can help you understand the possible benefits and risks of that treatment.  And you may be surprised, too.  There is more and more support for CAM among Western doctors every day.

And don’t forget possible side effects, either.  Some techniques may not work with your health condition or certain medications.  Always let your doctor know if you are already using alternative therapies.  And finally, don’t change or stop your regular Western treatment, including any prescription medications, without talking it over with your conventional doctor first.  You may not always appreciate it, but maintaining your health and safety really is your doctor’s number one priority.

We will be spending the next week or two exploring the world of alternative and complementary medicine.  First, though, let’s have a look at the basic categories, as classified by NCCAM:

Keeping in mind that there is a great deal of overlap between and among these therapies, they can be described as follows:
Mind-body medicine.  According to complementary and alternative medicine practitioners, your mind and your body must stay in harmonic balance in order for you to stay healthy.  Mind-body techniques develop awareness of, and strengthen, the communication between the two.  Mind-body connection techniques include meditation, prayer, art therapy, relaxation therapy and so forth.  We all know what stress can do to our bodies, so this is not a stretch.
Whole medical systems.  A system incorporates many practices that are built around a philosophy, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in the body.  Some examples of whole medical systems include:
  • Homeopathy.  A method that uses minute doses of a substance that causes symptoms to stimulate the body own self-healing response.
  • Naturopathy. An approach that relies on non-invasive treatments to aid the body’s own healing response.  It includes lots of familiar practices – massage, herbal remedies, exercise, lifestyle counseling, acupuncture and so on.
  • Ancient healing systems.  Here we have the systems that emerged long before conventional Western medicine, including India’s ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine
Energy medicine.  This involves belief in an invisible energy force that courses through the body.  Should this energy flow be out of balance or blocked, a person can fall ill.  This energy has many names: chi, prana and life force are just a few.  All the therapies in energy medicine endeavor to re-balance or unblock a patient’s energy force, and include qi gong, reiki, magnet therapy and therapeutic touch.
Biologically based practices.  Here we have all the herbal remedies and dietary supplements, the treatments based on ingredients found in nature.  Herbs and supplements are taken as teas, oils, powders, tablets or capsules or syrups.
Manipulation and body-based practices.  In these methods, human touch moves or manipulates a specific part or area of the body to promote healing or ease pain.  The methods include chiropractic and osteopathic massage and manipulation.
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