Complementary Medicine Roundup

In a slight departure from the usual sciencebase meanderings and inspired by Toby Murcott’s excellent and well-balanced book The Whole Story – Alternative Medicine on Trial, I’ve pulled together a clutch of articles I was commissioned to write on the subject of complementary medicine (alternative medicine if you will).

You can read more about a selection of complementary medicine practices here:

Various polls have shown that the use of CM has increased dramatically in the last twenty years with about a third of people having used CM at least once. It seems more and more people are turning away from the orthodox medicine of hospitals, GPs and pharmacists and looking for alternative or complementary forms of medicine to help with disease and aches and pains. There is more on Science Based Medicine here.

Complementary medicine (CM), though is not a single approach or even just a last resort or a cure-all for complaints that conventional medicine cannot fix. Often you will need to visit a practitioner several times to begin to see a result. It is lots of different ways of looking at illness and finding ways to treat it. It is based on many different practices and ideas. Some of them seem to work very well while others have been labelled by the medical establishment as pure quackery. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

The various approaches of CM practitioners range from using herbs and plant extracts in the form of tablets and tonics and topical lotions to the ‘laying on of hands’ in massage and manipulation. What particular therapy will work best for you depends very much on your illness or complaint but often even more on how you feel about the different forms of CM. What works for one person may not benefit someone else.

There are countless forms of complementary medicine some of the steeped in the ancient mysticism of the East, such as yoga, Reiki therapy and Shiatsu. Others have roots closer to home such as aromatherapy and herbalism, which are more closely related to pharmaceutical medicine than many people realise. There seem to be almost as many types of CM as there are practitioners. The most well-known and commonly used forms fit into broad areas, such as acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, herbal medicine, homeopathy, massage techniques and hypnotherapy.

Different forms of these general approaches lead to more specialist types of CM such as the Alexander technique, shiatsu, massage, reflexology, Reiki, yoga, meditation, nutritional therapy, relaxation techniques, cranial osteopathy, acupressure, healing, ayuverda, naturopathy and many others.

CM is usually not the first course of action your GP will suggest when you pay a visit with a wheezy chest or an aching back. But, various approaches, such as osteopathy, herbal medicine and acupuncture, as well as the other less well-known CM methods, are gradually being accepted as valid forms of treatment by medical science.

CM might sit outside conventional medicine – that’s its definition – but it is moving into the mainstream as more research is done. Different scientific studies are looking at the effectiveness of various approaches and medical science accepts that many forms, such as osteopathy, work very well, if not better than orthodox medicine. You may not realise it but many forms of CM are available through the NHS.

It is not unusual for medical students to study CM during their degree course. In 1995, about twelve medical schools were offering CM courses by 1997 and that figure had grown to more than forty with another twenty schools saying they would be introducing courses within two years. Many hospitals have practitioners on their wards. GPs too are starting to advise patients to seek osteopathic help or to try a course of relaxation rather than writing out a conventional prescription. Some doctors may even be CM practitioners themselves, for instance, many doctors are qualified homeopaths and acupuncturists. Pharmacists too are as likely to offer a ‘herbal’ remedy these days instead of a standard pharmaceutical product, although the likes of witchhazel and senna have been on their shelves for years.

There are warnings to heed when it comes to choosing CM. It is never a good idea to simply stop taking your prescription medicine to start a CM course of treatment, for instance. This is critical if you need drugs for asthma or high blood pressure and other serious illnesses. However, if the CM treatment improves your symptoms it might be worth asking your GP whether gradually reducing the dose of your conventional medicines might be safe under their supervision. It is always best to keep your doctor informed of alternative treatments you are taking, either way.

As with conventional medicine, there are risks to take into account when following a course of CM treatment. Some people taking herbal remedies have suffered side-effects worse than those due to conventional pharmaceuticals. Often problems arise because of impurities in the herbal medicine or else the variability of doses in over-the-counter preparations or preparations of unknown origin. Techniques that involve bone manipulation, especially of the spine and neck can do more harm than good if not carried out by a trained practitioner and even then accidents can happen, for which most registered practitioners will be insured. Some forms of alternative therapy, such as hypnotherapy, while very effective in many patients, can disturb some people although this is very rare.

You can read more about a selection of complementary medicine practices here:

With some exceptions, such as osteopaths and chiropractors, complementary practitioners do not have to join an official register to practice although many do. However, there are many associations for each different section of CM practice and many are working towards official accreditation to protect both practitioner and patient and to make sure standards are maintained. Doctors and the British Medical Association have all called for the law to be changed to ensure patient safety and the effectiveness of treatments and to speed up the process of official recognition or otherwise of the various practioner associations.

According to the well-respected British Medical Journal, there is nothing more ‘natural’ or ‘holistic’ about CM than conventional medicine. As the voice of the medical profession, it has called for more research to find out which types of CM work and just how well. Over the coming years, as CM is studied more and regulations help protect patients from the rogue element, CM is likely to become embraced by medicine for the good health of us all.

A survey in 1995 showed that almost two in five general practices offered some form of complementary for NHS patients although the patient had to pay for the treatment in most cases. A 1998 report said that more than 90% of hospices used CM.

There are now more complementary health therapists in the UK than GPs and that does not include GPs who also practice CM. There are 36,200 family doctors and almost 40,000 complementary practitioners, according to a study by Exeter University’s Centre for Complementary Health in collaboration with the Department of Health, last year. The numbers of CM practitioners is still growing.

There are more than 5000 reflexologists, 2300 osteopaths, and 1700 acupuncturists. The biggest group of CM practitioners is among the ‘healers’ of which there are many different forms including Reiki, faith healing, and touch therapists.

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2 thoughts on “Complementary Medicine Roundup

  1. Interesting. There are certainly lots of myths about acupuncture.

    When I tried it for a misdiagnosed vertebral disc prolapse, acupuncture caused me nothing but pain. On that and other anecdotal evidence I’d suggest it’s as just as invalid as homoepathy. On the whole, these so-called medical techniques are nothing but a descriptive of the sound a duck makes, as far as I can tell.

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