When is alternative medicine a good idea?

Modern medicine doesn't have much to offer people who suffer from chronic conditions brought on by poor diets and stressful, sedentary, emotionally unfulfilling lifestyles.

Drugs and surgeries may be necessary once things progress to the point of emergency, but as methods of disease management, reversal, or prevention, they are largely useless.

Once you arrive at that conclusion, then what?  There are a lot of non-traditional modalities, often labeled “holistic,” “alternative,” or “complementary,” that promise a safer, gentler, and more humane experience of health care.

Trouble is, they may still not get at the cause. Which, if you'll recall from the first paragraph of this article, is poor diet and stressful, sedentary, emotionally lifestyle.

So when is chiropractic, or naturopathy, or Reiki, or past life therapy, or aromatherapy, or drumming, or whatever the modality, a good idea?

Here are three criteria:

The modality can't be harmful, even if it's less harmful than the medical alternative

When we compare holistic treatments to medical ones, it's tempting to choose the lesser of two evils. So thermography to screen for breast cancer is less dangerous than mammography. But it still involves risks.

Glucosamine is less toxic than NSAID pain killers, but still can lead to side effects.

There has to be some evidence of efficacy

The thing with many alternative practitioners is that they are really good people who care deeply about their work, and about helping others. Yet they may be practicing a modality that simply doesn't work. Or doesn't work better than placebo.

Thermography doesn't reduce the risk of dying of breast cancer. Glucosamine can reduce arthritic symptoms, but doesn't improve outcomes. In fact, the reduction in pain can allow the underlying disease to progress even faster and more profoundly, since the patient no longer is motivated to solve the problem.

The treatment must either address the cause or buy time for the patient to address the cause

Just as drugs and surgery target symptoms, or secondary mechanisms, most supplements and manipulations also deal with the “downstream” effects of root causes. A chiropractic adjustment of the bones may offer relief, but what caused the bones to misalign in the first place? If you don't solve the postural and structural and mobility issues that engender misalignment, you're not making progress.

Some therapies can be very helpful in bolstering your mindset, so that you are better able to improve your habits and lifestyle. Used in that way, many mind-body therapies have a valuable place at the table.

Talking with alternative and complementary practitioners

Basically, ask them the same questions you would (or should!) ask any healthcare practitioner:

  • What are the risks and benefits of this treatment? (ask for evidence: clinical trials, case studies, traditional uses; and be aware of the difference between stories and science).
  • What's the root cause of my condition, and how does this treatment deal with that?
  • If it doesn't directly address the root cause, how will you help me do that?

Most of the time, the real danger of holistic healthcare is that it's a kinder, gentler distraction from the real work of getting well: cleaning up the diet and improving lifestyle.

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