Alternative medicine can be defined as any form of therapy, practice or treatment which is outside the mainstream or beyond the realm of the conventional.
More generally it can be defined as any approach or medicine which differs from conventional Western forms. Alternative medicine is often talked about in conjunction with Complementary Therapy and the umbrella term Complementary & Alternative Medicine or CAM is used.
As a general guide some of the more mainstream CAMs are acupuncture, acupuncture, aromatherapy, herbal medicine, homoeopathy, hypnotherapy, massage therapy, naturopathy, reiki, reflexology & Yoga.
Alternative medicine in the UK is growing year on year and in 2006 it generated expenditure of 1.6 billion pounds. Large numbers of people choose to seek out alternative forms of medicine subsequent to a diagnosis from their GP or other traditional route. However in the main, research shows that people tend to use CAMs in parallel with conventional medicine. There is often resistance from GPs to recommend or refer a patient to an alternative therapy where they consider empirical evidence to be limited or non-conclusive and the research methods are not always standardised as with traditional medicine. There are also often funding issues relating to onward referrals within the NHS.
However, the CAM sector is responding to this criticism by adopting the standard research methods & evidence provision in line with the medical establishments traditional methods. This is largely assisting with the rapid growth of this multi-layered industry, alongside the continually growing wealth of positive empirical evidence.
Generally speaking CAM's can be organised into five key areas, although it should be noted that there are number of areas where these overlap. These areas are -
Whole Medical Systems (WMS)
WHMS have been developed in the West - often with it roots in other medicine systems. Examples of this type of system are Naturopathy - helping or stimulating the body's own in-built healing system by improving diet & lifestyle in conjunction with other CAMs such as acupuncture and massage. A good non Western parallel to this system is Chinese Medicine as is Ayurveda which hails from India and takes the holistic approach of treating the mind body & spirit via massage, yoga, herbs & meditation.
Another WMS which developed in recent years in the West is Homeopathy the practice of stimulating the healing system of the body by delivering minute amounts of certain elements or substances which in much higher doses would be detrimental or dangerous to a patient's health.
Mind-Body Medicine (MBM)
MBM can call upon a number of techniques which are aimed at improving the symptoms & functions of the body e.g. meditation, Yoga etc. A number of therapies which historically where thought to be CAMs are now firmly placed in the mainstream such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming).
Biologically Based Practices (BBP)
BBP are derived from elements and materials which are found naturally such as vitamins for supplements, healthy foods for well being & detoxification and herbs helping with everything from pain relief to stress & weight loss. Biologically based practices in CAM use substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, and vitamins. Some examples include dietary supplements, herbal products, and the use of other so-called natural but as yet scientifically unproven therapies (for example, using shark cartilage to treat cancer).
Manipulative and Body-Based Practices (MBBP)
MBBP work by manipulation, pressure and rubbing of soft tissues and muscles aimed at promoting repair, better health & flexibility. These type of therapy work by removing scar tissue, promoting oxygen flow and helping the removal of toxins and acids.
A number are further examples of therapies which are becoming less and less alternative and more mainstream. These include Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Massage & other body work such as Shiatsu and Sports Massage.
Energy Medicine Therapies (EMT)
EMT are believed to help the patient by tapping into the energy fields which cloak the human body and restoring balance, improving energy flow and clearing blockages. Examples of these type of therapies are Reiki, Chinese Medicine and Energy Healing.
So, why the growth in CAMs? Well, in recent years patients have gradually taken more accountability & responsibility for their health and are not as happy as maybe they once were to be told what to do or how to live. As a result they are becoming more autonomous and seeking out their own alternatives and solutions.
It is important to note they don't side step mainstream traditional medicine but seek help from CAMs to complement their treatment. Part of the reason for this empowerment is the growth of the internet and the ease of access to swathes of information, research, forums and feedback available at a click on the World Wide Web. Recent research has shown that over 60% of internet users use the web to provide answers on health related issues.
In addition to the ground swell of the general public embracing CAMs, areas of traditional medicine are adopting and recommending alternative therapies. The NHS now has as 5 hospitals offering CAMs for patients and more and more health professionals such as doctors, nurses and mid wives are training in alternative therapies to offer within their mainstream practice.