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Alternative Medicine encompasses health care practices that sit over against, or in opposition to, the generally accepted practices of western medicine. ‘Alter’ comes from the Latin root meaning ‘other of two.’ As such alternative medicines are grouped together as those treatments ‘other than that’ which is used within the prevailing culture. In western culture thought, these alternative treatments are more commonly associated with the medical traditions of other societies, folk medical lore, and healing methods using natural remedies. Remedies may include herbal medicines, diet, massage, acupuncture, homeopathy, and related therapies.

What is it that has patients looking towards alternative health practices? Certainly there is increasing disillusionment with the rationalistic approaches of clinical western methods. In all sorts of care situations the concept of a person’s health treatment being multifaceted is not only being addressed but being demanded. The patient-medical practitioner relationship is changing. Patients are taking control of their own health treatments. They are asking more questions and wanting answers. Patients are even more likely to consider alternatives when the side effects of recommended mainstream treatments like chemotherapy are examined. When their questions can’t be answered, or when treatments fail, the patient looks for other options.

The over prescription of drugs linked to the advent of drug resistant diseases, has led to more conservatively inclined patients to look for alternatives. The general population is already talking about, if not using, vitamins and plant extracts as early treatments or preventatives for the common cold and flu.

The influence of immigrants on the health landscape must be acknowledged. These different cultural practices have come more into the mainstream as the face of the host culture has developed and encompassed the gift of different ideas. Partly, these ideas have permeated through the population because of the wider exposure to those who do things differently—from Chinese restaurants to Chinese acupuncture. Simplistically put, but one can’t deny that the acculturation of western minds is at work.

The reality of the world as a global village, the transmitting of information in microseconds, the advent of the internet, and other developments in communication technologies have given ideas and practices, including information about alternative medicine, the opportunity to flourish. The terms globalization, medicine and alternative are key hit words on internet search programs.

At one level, word-of-mouth, whether it’s the next-door neighbor, or the internet—the largest gossip community ever—information about alternative medicine has spread. Add a superhero or superstar who has used some method of alternative medicine, and that practices gains another level of authority and respectability. When Oprah was treated by an acupuncturist in front of her viewing audience, the associative cachet extended towards this treatment therapy is evident.

People who pursue different treatment methods have been linked to those suffering in illness domains allied to cancers, immune deficiencies, joint problems and pain management needs. When the options in the dominant medicinal practices are exhausted, the need for a cure drives people towards searching for other choices. Some turn to past wisdom’s of Europe, others to Indigenous precepts, and yet others look to the East.

Asian and Indigenous cultures have very different philosophical viewpoints and spiritual basis by contrast to the Greco-Roman influences on western cultural practices. These values have in turn influenced the view of the person and the way medical insights have been incorporated into these perspectives. Those other cultures place the person’s illness within the context of the patient’s complex identity, their totality of givens, of their life experiences and history. A term commonly associated with alternative medicine is Holistic Medicine. The practitioner is not just treating the symptoms of the illness, but is taking into consideration the totality of the person, their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well being.

Aboriginal Treatments incorporate traditional healing methods such as the use of plant extracts, crystals, dream therapies, and sweat lodge practices. As holistic therapies, they involve the restoration of the spiritual, physical and mental well being of the patient. Many treatments are conducted by tribal elders or healers as part of special ceremonies, including purification rituals that release toxic build ups. A person’s relationship with the earth is tacit in this healing tradition. Some treatments pursue this more rigorously than others.

Alternatives that look to East Indian Treatments are based on the Vedic medical practices of the Ancient Hindus as presented in a variety of Ayurvedic healing treatments, and other natural therapies. Again the whole person and their relationship to the environment becomes part of the cure. Natural remedies, massage, diet and meditation, alongside natural laws and knowledge are the hinge points for harmony and balance in restoring health. Music therapy can also be part of this tradition.

Naturopathy or Naturopathic medicine focuses on disease prevention and the maintenance of health. Naturopathy treats illness by assisting the body’s healing ability through natural means. They look for the cause of the illness and prescribe treatments accordingly. These could include hydrotherapy, acupuncture, herbal remedies, homeopathy and aromatherapy. Treatments where naturally occurring healing powers are harnessed. Manuka Honey from New Zealand has strong antibacterial properties and can be used against infection when treating slow healing open wounds. Naturopaths tend not to use invasive surgery.

Homeopathy treats diseases based on the idea that ‘like cures like.’ To treat the illness, the body’s immune system is stimulated. Small amounts of similar or diluted agents of the disease, that in larger doses would produce induce the illness in a healthy person, are given. The remedies are made specifically for each individual according to their needs as a whole—including their emotional mental health and lifestyles. The German physician Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843) was the first to use the term.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM, is concerned with renewing and promoting the harmony and balance of the body’s two opposing energy aspects, the Yin and Yang. This harmony can be achieved through the use of practices such as acupuncture, massage, herbal treatments and diet. The theory behind traditional Chinese medicine is that the body is a dynamic energy system. Body, mind and spirit are a totality working as one, and are to be treated as such. Two opposing forces, the Yin and Yang, are constantly at work, vacillating to create a balance, a harmonious healthy body. Protracted excesses or deficiencies in either the Yin or Yang causes illness The aim of Chinese traditional medicine is to maintain and/or restore harmony in the body and the balance of these two energies—Yin and Yang. Acupuncture focuses on the Qi (chee) points, as does massage, and the practice of Qigong, or the art of breathing to maintain good health.

Acupuncture as one of the world’s oldest medical treatments is one of the fundamental arts of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This alternative medical therapy actively stimulates certain places, ‘acupoints’ or Qi (chee) points on the body’s meridians, increasing the body’s energy flow and balance. Meridians are the energy pathways of the body. Fine needles insinuated at these points encourage the energy flow and expedite healing. Frequently used to manage pain, acupuncture has application for many other disorders, including physical expressions of stress related illnesses.

Another of the primary practices in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chinese Massage works on the body’s energy pathways or meridians, to restore the balance of energy in the healing process. It is considered to be an effective treatment for health problems similar to those addressed by acupuncture therapy. Like acupuncture, Chinese Massage seeks to stimulate at the ‘acupoints’ where Qi (chee) accumulates. Soft tissue is manipulated at these points in defined ways to restore and heal. Circulation and blood flow are promoted by this massage treatment. Massage techniques act on the Qi encouraging the blood flow, in turn promoting relaxation and wellbeing throughout the body. Spasms are countered and flexibility returns. Massage therapy is being used more commonly to relieve work stress related illnesses, particularly back and neck pain caused from extended computer usage, and from injuries caused by physical labor.

Herbal Treatments have been used for many thousands of years, and remains the initial therapy choice for many cultures. Herbalist treatments vary according to the culture. Unique treatments are prepared for the client after a consultation around their medical history, nutrition practices and lifestyle influences. Treatments can include the use of teas, plant extracts, tinctures, and essential oils. Herbal treatments are vital aspects of Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine practices. Herbal therapy is as much concerned with the prevention of disease as treatment. One attraction for using this therapy type is the avoidance of the side effects of drug-based medications.

Complementary and alternative medicine, referred to as CAM, is that treatment that includes all these and many more therapies alongside the prevailing culturally dominant health care tradition. Alternative medicine is seen as a legitimate other choice or possibility within the treatment scope. A physician will use some of these treatments, such as homeopathy and acupuncture, or refer the patient for further treatment to one of the alternative medicine practitioners, in the same way as they refer patients to other medical specialists.