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Alternative Therapies

An increasing number of Americans are choosing alternative methods for health improvement and medical treatment. Why has there been so much interest in alternative therapies lately? Is this something you should consider?

What are alternative therapies?

Alternative therapies are diagnostic methods and treatments that don't usually conform to standard medical practice. Nor are they generally taught at accredited medical schools. The philosophy of many alternative therapies is to treat the source of the problem, not just the symptoms. The goal is to achieve a sense of well-being in the relationship between the mind and the body, even in the face of disease. What separates alternative therapies from conventional medicine is the belief that achieving and maintaining health is different from fighting disease.

Why the interest in alternative therapies?

Many alternative therapy users believe that traditional doctors fail to understand and practice preventive medicine. They also feel that these doctors do not communicate with patients and are too dependent on expensive tests. This lack of interaction that ignores the human side of medicine has increased the interest in alternative therapies. Other reasons include:

  • The public's increased disaffection with traditional care
  • A belief that managed care means less care
  • People want to feel in control of their bodies
  • People are seeking ways to relieve the symptoms and side effects of conventional treatments

What medical conditions have been treated with alternative therapies?

Alternative therapies have been used on patients with a wide range of conditions and disorders, such as:

  • Allergies
  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • Back pain
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Neck problems

What are the different types of alternative therapies?

Many therapies are well known, others are exotic and mysterious, and some are dangerous. A partial list includes:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic
  • Diet/nutrition
  • Energy healing
  • Folk therapies
  • Herbal remedies
  • Homeopathy
  • Manual healing methods
  • Naturopathy
  • Osteopathy

Do they work?

Many people claim they've been cured of colds, headaches, fever, asthma, or more serious illnesses as a result of alternative therapies. However, some conventional medical doctors say that these results are similar to experiments in which patients felt better after taking sugar pills. In addition, medical journals have reported studies on alternative therapies that describe their benefits, but most of these studies have been questioned by scientists for flaws in research methods.

Despite conflicting claims, the belief in alternative therapies is increasing. In fact, some hospitals and insurance companies are using alternative therapy doctors as primary care physicians.

How should you select a practitioner?

Look into the background, qualifications, and competence of any health-care practitioner you might use. There are various national organizations for alternative therapies that are probably familiar with your state's licensing and certification requirements. These organizations might even offer referrals and information about particular practitioners. But beware--they don't function as regulatory authorities.

Talk with other health practitioners and patients who have had experience with the practitioner you're considering. Find out if there have ever been any complaints. The main point to consider is whether the practitioner follows regulated standards for medical safety and care.

Meet the practitioner in person. Look at the conditions of the office or clinic. Ask about education, additional training, licenses, and certifications. What is the practitioner's approach to treatment and patients? Find out how the practitioner will communicate with you about technical aspects of the therapy, possible side effects, and potential problems. Ask how willing the practitioner is to cooperate with other branches of medical science, including referring patients to other practitioners for diagnosis or treatment when needed. Finally, look for a practitioner who is easy to talk to--you should feel comfortable asking questions.

Should you try alternative therapy?

Here are some questions to ask your practitioner:

  • Is the therapy safe?
  • Are the benefits greater than the risks?
  • How does my medical situation compare with other patients who have used the same therapy?
  • Is there any new research on the safety and effectiveness of the therapy?
  • What are the side effects, expected results, and length of treatment?

Make sure to tell your practitioner about any alternative or conventional treatments you're receiving. This information may be used to consider the safety and effectiveness of your entire treatment plan. Also, talk with people who had similar medical conditions and received the same therapy you're considering. Try to find people who had success with the therapy as well as those who didn't.

Who pays?

Many alternative therapies are not reimbursed by health insurance, so ask your insurance company. You may have to pay out of pocket. To get a better idea of the costs, find out what other practitioners charge. Regulatory agencies and professional organizations also may provide this information.

What precautions to take

The use of herbal treatments has flourished. But be aware that mixing herbal supplements, especially with prescription medications, can spell trouble for you--even if the label says "all natural." Many herbs interact with drugs in ways that can increase or reduce their effectiveness.

Proper health-care management requires that your practitioner coordinate all conventional and alternative therapies to have a complete picture of your treatment plan. Discuss all issues about treatments and therapies with your practitioner:

  • Tell your doctor and pharmacist about the vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements you take
  • Use one pharmacy to fill your prescriptions so all of your medications can be monitored
  • Tell your doctor about your diet--it can change the way herbs and drugs work
  • Ask about the hazards that might result from postponing or stopping conventional medical treatment

As an informed consumer, you should continue gathering information, even after you've selected a practitioner and an alternative therapy treatment.