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Integrative Medicine - The Best of Both Worlds

Posted May 11th, 2009 by Trisha Torrey

Have you ever taken vitamins or herbal supplements, visited a chiropractor or acupuncturist, taken a yoga class, had a massage, or learned to meditate? If so, you are among the 62 percent of Americans who have invested some of their healthcare choices in alternative or complementary therapies.

Why are they called complementary or alternative?  Because they are not traditional, medical, scientifically prescribed ways to treat your symptoms or improve your health.  Most of them come from Eastern, as in Asian, roots.  Some were developed or discovered thousands of years ago.  Others were made up more recently by someone who wanted to make money from them.  Still others are based on old wives tales, although as we all know, our grandmothers and mothers often provided health solutions that weren’t based on something you purchased off a drug store shelf.

Called CAM by the government (complementary and alternative), there is not a lot of hard, scientific evidence that these therapies do, or don’t, work.  But there are plenty of people who have used them. Some firmly believe their health has improved.

Let’s sort them out to be sure we are talking about the same things:

Complementary therapies are those which are used in addition to the treatment recommended by a medical doctor.  Examples would be a woman who chooses to meditate while undergoing breast cancer chemo, or an arthritis patient choosing yoga to help him stretch.

Alternative therapies replace conventional therapies.  Choosing to take St. John’s Wort instead of a pharmaceutical antidepressant or seeing a chiropractor for a bacterial infection – these types of alternative choices may be used in place of a more conventional, medically determined option.

Until recently, it was very difficult to find a healthcare provider who would discuss both “sides” of medicine – conventional (also called Western medicine) and CAM.  Medical doctors (MDs or DOs) stayed strictly on the traditional, evidence-based side of prescribing and treating.  A host of others, including naturopaths, massage therapists or hypnotists would make only CAM recommendations.

One reason they did not come together is because CAM practitioners are generally not licensed to practice conventional medicine.  Few are doctors. Few can prescribe pharmaceutical drugs or other therapies.

But more recently, some licensed medical doctors have begun to study, then practice a combination of both, often in response to their patients who wanted to discuss possibilities. 

When complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is combined with conventional medicine, the approach is called Integrative Care. East meets West, and the collaborative combination may help you.

If you are interested in pursuing CAM options for your health, here are a few Do’s and Don’ts to get you started:

·     DO your research about possible therapies that may help your particular medical challenge.  Just be careful to find credible websites from which to get your information.

·         DO look online for evidence that your potential CAM therapy works.  Few CAM therapies have been studied closely enough to have this kind of evidence available, but the search will be worth it for your own peace of mind, and your doctor’s. But again, be sure to discern how credible that evidence is.

·         DO double check any potential conflicts with drugs you may be already taking against any herbals or supplements you choose to take.  For example, many alternative supplements can interfere with diabetes or heart or vascular system-related drugs.

·         DON’T start any new therapy without talking to your doctor first, whether it’s complementary or alternative.  For example, a patient with spinal stenosis could be badly hurt by some forms of massage or yoga.

·         DON’T keep information about your use of these therapies a secret from your doctor.  If you don’t share information honestly, and you run into a problem, then your doctor will not be able to treat you accurately to get past the problem.

This integration of Eastern and Western medicine will continue to evolve.  As more and more people share their experiences, both good and bad, we will continue to learn what does work well, and what does not.


About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at

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