Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Tapping into the Body’s Natural Healing Ability

Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Tapping into the Body’s Natural Healing Ability

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by Kray Kibler

With rising healthcare costs, the surge of Baby Boomers heading into retirement, and the growing number of Americans with chronic disease, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) – once confined to realms outside of mainstream, Western medicine – has become one of the fastest growing healthcare fields in the country.

CAM encompasses a wide array of healthcare practices, products and therapies that are distinct from those used in conventional medicine. Some forms of CAM, such as traditional Chinese medicine, massage therapy, and Ayurvedic medicine, have been practiced for centuries, while others, such as chiropractic, laser therapy and electrotherapy, are more recent in origin.

CAM therapies emphasize the natural healing ability of the body versus the emphasis on technology for healing in conventional medicine, treating the whole person and emphasizing prevention. A growing number of traditional healthcare professionals have begun to integrate CAM into their treatment programs for its proven benefits, including pain and injury prevention, post-surgical treatment and non-invasive pain relief. For instance, the Mayo Clinic has incorporated massage therapy into post-surgical treatment.[i]

CAM: more popular now than ever before

About 40 percent of Americans use CAM for specific conditions or overall well-being.[ii] By encouraging health and wellness, and ownership of healthcare costs, healthcare reform has played a role in prompting more consumers to turn to CAM options in combination with conventional medicine. CAM approaches tend to be less reliant on surgery and medication than traditional healthcare options.

CAM’s growing popularity has given rise to new technologies, such as low-level laser therapy, which is used in chiropractic, physical therapy, sports medicine and, increasingly, in mainstream medicine. This therapy fosters wound healing and tissue regeneration, relieves pain and inflammation, prevents tissue death and reduces degeneration in many neurological issues.

For physical therapy practices, integrating lasers can provide patients with a natural, non-invasive solution that fits every stage of care, accelerating pain relief and healing with no side effects or risk of addiction to painkillers.

Other innovative products have been developed for massage therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and athletic trainers, including high quality equipment, supplies and life-enhancing products – and seem poised to change the face of healthcare. CAM also includes herbal medicines, botanicals and probiotics in the form of dietary supplements.

What are the benefits of massage therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture?

Massage Therapy – Studies show that massage therapy (MT) increases endorphins and serotonin, chemicals that act as natural painkillers and mood regulators. MT also reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and turns off genes associated with inflammation and its associated pain, which in turn relieves muscle soreness.[iii] Moderate to deep pressure massage can regulate heartbeat, helping with everything from depression relief to weight gain in premature infants. Studies also show that massage helps reduce anxiety, pain and nausea in cancer patients by 44 percent, and also raises the level of cancer-fighting white blood cells.[iv]

Chiropractic – More than 30 million Americans suffer back pain, and an estimated 80 percent will suffer from it at some time in their life. Chiropractic treatment of neck pain provides more relief than over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. In one study, after 12 weeks of treatment more than half treated reported at least 75 percent reduction in pain compared with one-third in the drug group. A year later more than 50 percent of those treated with chiropractic reported significant decrease in pain. Meanwhile the patients taking pain killers had upped their dosage during the same period.[v]

Acupuncture – Acupuncture has been studied for a wide range of pain conditions, such as post-operative dental pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headache, low back pain, menstrual cramps, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis and tennis elbow.[vi]

Researchers in Germany conducting acupuncture trials for patients with chronic low back pain found that only 15 percent of subjects who received genuine acupuncture treatment needed extra pain medication, compared with 34 percent who were receiving placebo treatments, and 59 percent receiving conventional therapy.[vii] Long-term pain reduction was also best for subjects who received either real or placebo acupuncture versus those who received conventional therapy.

In another study, researchers used placebo acupuncture controls entirely and compared it to the drug Effexor for relieving hot flashes in breast cancer patients. They found that acupuncture relieved hot flashes as effectively as the drug and with fewer side effects, namely the lack of energy and reduced sex drive.

Advocates of acupuncture say that it doesn’t matter if a placebo effect is at work or not because the ultimate goal is to activate the body’s power to heal itself. This, in fact, seems to be the point at which Western medicine and the relatively new approaches of CAM such as laser therapy and electrotherapy do converge.[viii]

CAM influences the future of U.S. healthcare

More than 632 million people worldwide suffer from low back pain, and it is a leading cause of disability. According to the Institute of Medicine, one-third of all Americans suffer from chronic pain, which exceeds the number of people who are affected by heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined. The economic costs of medical care and lost productivity total more than $550 billion annually.[ix]

Back pain and related conditions are the top reasons adults use CAM. Research on CAM therapies for low back pain suggest that:

  • Spinal manipulation can provide mild-to-moderate relief, and appears to be as effective as conventional treatments.
  • Acupuncture is more effective than placebo or no treatment in relieving pain and improving function – and is an effective complement to conventional treatments.
  • A 2008 review of 13 clinical trials found evidence that massage might be useful for low back pain.

Recently, the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society said these CAM therapies can serve as options for chronic back pain that does not improve with self-care.[x]

CAM’s growing popularity highlights a number of opportunities for improvement within conventional medicine, including the need to: generate more meaningful communication between patient and healthcare providers; update the definition of wellness and health maintenance; foster an environment in which physicians and patients have the opportunity to explore alternative therapies that can be incorporated with conventional medicine; and improve the U.S. healthcare system for long-term sustainability.[xi]

About the Author

Kray Kibler, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, Scrip Companies, first joined Scrip in May 2006, gaining broad and deep experience throughout the business with responsibility for oversight of the Company’s financial, IT, human resource, customer service, distribution operations and field/corporate sales.

[i] Forrester, Leslie; Why Massage Should Be Part of Your Daily Life; Quality Life Massage Therapy; Jan. 7, 2013; http://www.qualitylifemassagetherapy.com/348/; accessed March 19, 2014.
[ii] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?; 2013;  http://nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam; accessed April 28, 2014.
[iii] Walsh, Bryan; Alternative Medicine: Your guide to stress relief, healing, nutrition and more; 2014; TIME Magazine.
[iv] Walsh.
[v] Walsh.
[vi] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; Acupuncture for Pain; http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/acupuncture-for-pain.htm; accessed March 19, 2014.
[vii] Braunstein, Glenn; Evaluating the Clinical Effectiveness of Acupuncture
Huffington Post; October 11, 2010; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/glenn-d-braunstein-md/evaluating-the-clinical-e_b_758343.html; accessed March 19, 2014.
[viii] Braunstein, 2010.
[ix] Science Daily; Hands-on treatment improves chronic low back pain, reduces medication use; March 18, 2013; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130318202917.htm; accessed March 19, 2014.
[x] National Institutes of Health; Low Back Pain and CAM; Medline Plus; Winter 2009; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/winter09/articles/winter09pg19.html; March 19, 2014.
[xi] Passarelli, Tonya; Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States; MPHP 439; Case Western Reserve University; April 2008; http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/complimentary_meds.pdf; accessed April 28, 2014.

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