One of the hottest topics in medicine that has gained much steam over the past few years is that of Integrated or Alternative Medicine. According to WebMD, the percentage of hospitals that offered non-traditional (or non-allopathic) therapies has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, with a large percentage of organizations with a plan to breach the market that is complementary therapy. With all of the fuss then, what exactly is integrated/alternative/complimentary or holistic medicine? 

Integrated medicine refers to the seemingly limitless variety of potential medical therapies that does not fall under the traditional standard of Allopathic (Western) medicine. The word Allopathic comes from two Greek terms meaning “different disease.”  This term (sometimes used in the negative) indicates a foundation of germ theory, or that foreign bacteria, viruses and pathogens cause disease in humans. These foreign pathogens become the target for medicines and treatments. Other words for this type of medicine include "scientific medicine" or "evidence-based medicine." 

If Western medicine deals with external causes of disease, alternative medicine takes the opposite view – that the causes of disease are primarily internal, and can be cured or remedied by restoring proper function of the body. The umbrella of alternative medicine literally covers anything that one might attempt for restoration, from chiropractic, massage, acupuncture and vitamins to homeopathy, tai chi, cupping, urine tonic and colloidal silver therapy.

What type of medicine should be trusted? A few things to note: there is great variation between alternative therapies as to their scientific basis – for example, chiropractic therapy versus cupping are worlds apart. To make things even more difficult, there is also great variation within alternative therapies that color the scientific validity of the approach – for example, while chiropractic therapy is widely used and has been shown to help with back pain, the fundamental reasoning behind chiropractic is dubious at best. This idea leads to the primary problem with non-western medicine – lack of evidence. Integrative therapies may work or they may not, but there is an overwhelming void when it comes to research and evidence for their use. Unfortunately for the most part, non-traditional medicines have come about largely due to a perhaps legitimate dissatisfaction with western medicine; the holistic movement is reactionary in large measure. 

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So we’re again left with the question of what to trust? Here are a few facts that one should take into consideration when thinking about medicine in general:
1. There are only two types of medicine – medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t. The dichotomy between western/allopathic, naturopathic, alternative, integrative etc. etc. is a bad way of thinking about these things. The questions should be:
“Does this work? How does it work? How do I know?”
2. The foundation is important. If someone is selling you a therapy that’s based upon personal subliminal messages received from outer space, you can pretty much discredit that one because it's not subject to inquiry – it can’t be tested, ergo it can’t be validated or disproven. Does it work? It might, but you’ll have nothing but personal experimentation to back it up. 
3. Just because the foundation of a medicine is false, doesn’t mean the therapy is. This makes it doubly difficult and here is where a whole new discussion of “mind/body medicine” could take place. But you have to refer back to the questions about how to get your bearings: “How will I know that this works?”

One point of great interest regarding the foundations of the holistic movement is that the idea of prevention and limited use of medication has long been a staple of Western Medicine. In fact, it's in a form that many of us have seen and probably trusted for years – the D.O. A doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) undergoes the same level and rigor of training as the standard M.D., and is licensed in the same way. In addition, some well-respected, traditional U.S. universities are well known for their practice of alternative medicine.

A great resource for those who want an in-depth and entertaining look into complementary therapies of many shades is a book called “Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial” by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. This will give you a good starting point on how to evaluate medical therapy of all kinds.

Good luck and good health to you!

By BitMED Provider: Joseph Accursio MD