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Complementary and Alternative Medicines: Uses and Effectiveness

Natan Rosenfeld Natan Rosenfeld March 30, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MDAsma Khapra, MD, and Marianne Madsen

Before modern medicine, ancient cultures had their own remedies for disease. Some of these were primitive and based largely on superstition, but others were quite effective and continue to be used today. These treatments are referred to as complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs).

 

There is some skepticism surrounding CAMs, partly because our current level of science cannot explain how some of them work and partly because some of them don’t seem to work at all. Here are a few types of alternative medicine that are supported by scientific evidence, at least to some degree.

 

Acupuncture

 

Acupuncture is an ancient therapy–it’s been around for more than 3,000 years. It’s an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The practice involves a trained acupuncturist sticking tiny needles into specific points on the body. These needles are thought to restore the balance of qi, the body’s natural flow of energy. Studies have shown that acupuncture is effective at treating numerous conditions, such as headaches, fibromyalgia, lower back pain, and addiction. 

 

Chiropractic

 

You’ve probably heard of a chiropractor, but what exactly do they do? During a treatment session, a chiropractor will manipulate your spine or other joints in your body to relieve pain and restore flexibility and movement. The practice is typically seen as controversial, as benefits have not been shown to be particularly significant, but many believe it helps. Studies show that chiropractic adjustment can effectively treat lower back and neck pain as well as headaches, and that it may even reduce the likelihood of relying on opioid drugs to manage pain. 

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Massage

 

While chiropractic and massage may sound like similar types of treatment, massage has a lot more proven health benefits. In fact, the practice has been used for thousands of years, and today you can find massage clinics in any city in the world. There are many different types of massage, some involving calming music or scented oils, but the goal of each one is the same–to promote relaxation, reduce back and other types of pain, and calm the mind. Massage has a wide variety of health benefits. It has been proven to help with stress, anxiety, and even depression, as well as insomnia, lower back pain, and high blood pressure. 

 

Yoga

 

Yoga is a form of exercise that involves slow, controlled movements. It improves strength, balance, and flexibility without a lot of stress on the joints. Practicing yoga actually has a number of health benefits, including improved heart health, better sleep, and back pain relief. 

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Biofeedback

 

Biofeedback is a therapy that aims to treat a patient’s health problems by giving them better control over their body. During a biofeedback session, you are asked to control your body’s reactions by changing your thoughts, emotions, or behavior. For example, you may be asked to concentrate on relaxing tight muscles that are causing headaches. A therapist will use electrical sensors to monitor your brain waves. These waves are translated into data on a computer and change based on how your body is functioning. Then they’re translated into lights and sounds which represent your progress. Biofeedback is safe and can be effective for certain conditions like anxiety, headache, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia. Again, since biofeedback is a type of therapy, it requires effort on the part of the patient to produce results. 

 

Herbal medicine

 

Herbal medicine is a general term for a wide range of plant-based medications or supplements. There are thousands of different herbs and plants available to treat every ailment under the sun. Many herbal medicines have scientific backing. Ginseng, for one, has numerous proven health benefits. Green tea has relaxing properties and is high in antioxidants, while St. John’s Wort, if used with caution, can treat depression. These are just a few of the herbs that may help with certain conditions. Take care when using herbs, as if they are misused, they can be dangerous. If you’re thinking about using a herbal remedy, make sure to inform yourself, and ask your doctor about any potential drug interactions. 

 

Homeopathy

 

The concept of homeopathy or homeopathic medicine was developed in Germany in 1796. Homeopathics are diluted preparations of substances such as plants and minerals that believers use to help the body heal itself. Homeopathy has been researched extensively and, to date, there is little to no evidence that homeopathic remedies are any better than placebos. However, there are other studies that show that homeopathy may have its place in conjunction with Western medicine. Many in the US use it, some saying that it is in the top three of alternative or complementary medicine strategies that they use. Homeopathics are regulated as medicines by the FDA. Homeopathics are usually very dilute, so they are considered safe to use.

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Mindfulness-based stress reduction

 

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a type of meditation developed in the 1970s. The practice, which takes inspiration from both traditional meditation and yoga, involves focusing on, or being aware of, the present moment, to reduce stress. MBSR is typically done in an 8-week program consisting of weekly sessions. Although few studies have been done on MBSR, most conclude that the practice has health benefits. Pain reduction, decreased stress levels, and reduced depressive symptoms are only some of the positive health effects of MBSR. Meditation as a whole has gained popularity in recent years, and it’s likely that future studies will add to the consensus that the practice is beneficial, both for the body and for the mind.

 

Guided imagery

 

Guided imagery is a type of meditation that involves focusing on peaceful mental images to promote relaxation and well-being. A typical session includes a practitioner who, with the help of calming music, directs your mind to a better place. For example, your imagination might take you on a walk on the beach at night. The goal of guided imagery is to relieve stress, promote wellbeing, and treat mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. The practice does show benefits. A 2018 study found that nature-based guided imagery was effective for treating anxiety. Other studies have concluded that guided imagery is valuable for many other purposes such as overcoming stress or pain and even reducing the risk of complications after a medical procedure. 

 

Visualization

 

Visualization is a form of meditation similar to guided imagery. One who practices visualization sits, eyes closed, for a few minutes, and imagines a specific positive scenario. Many use visualization to help achieve goals or to develop a more positive outlook on life. Since visualization and guided imagery are so alike, the benefits are much the same for both. Research shows that visualization and similar techniques can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, relieve pain, alleviate stress, and, surprisingly, even improve physical performance.

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Aromatherapy

 

Aromatherapy is a type of therapy based on scent. The practice relies on essential oils, extracted from various plants, that produce a wide variety of pleasant aromas and are thought to influence the mind and body. Some common essential oils are lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, and frankincense. To date, there hasn’t been any concrete evidence showing that essential oils or aromatherapy can treat any sorts of ailments.  However, smaller studies have shown that aromatherapy may relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression or improve sleep. 

 

Hypnotherapy

 

Hypnotherapy, or hypnosis, is a mental state that is induced by a trained therapist. The therapist will use certain verbal techniques to dig into the patient’s subconscious and explore the root of their problems and help a patient understand how to solve them.  Some studies have shown that hypnosis is effective in treating mental health conditions, such as anxiety, as well as helping to alleviate chronic pain. But studies are mixed on the effectiveness of hypnosis for conditions such as depression, overeating, schizophrenia, and addiction.

Reiki

 

Similar to acupuncture, reiki involves a type of energy, referred to as Universal Life Energy. During a reiki session, a practitioner places his or her hands on or above the patient’s body to transmit or reorganize this energy. Unlike acupuncture and yoga, reiki hasn’t been shown to have concrete health benefits. But one large study found that just one session of reiki helped with pain, depression, anxiety, and several other conditions. Other studies have had similar outcomes. But more research is needed to rule out a potential placebo effect. 

 

Therapeutic touch

 

Therapeutic touch is very similar to reiki, discussed above. In both techniques, practitioners place their hands around or on the patient’s body to transmit a type of energy force. The practice is meant to improve mental and physical health by utilizing the body’s own healing ability. There is no scientific evidence that the energy force which reiki and therapeutic touch are based on exists, but, nonetheless, the practice may bring some health benefits. As with reiki, the benefits can include reduced pain, depression, stress and anxiety, and increased relaxation. Again, more research is needed on this type of therapy.

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