In the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates taught that disease was caused by imbalance and instability of the four “vital Humors” within a patient’s body. Treatment of illness involved laxatives, purges, herbs, rest, and hydration to rebalance the Humors.
Over the following centuries, many medical traditions evolved to heal sickness and ease suffering. Most embrace the idea of restoring balance to cure disease. Chinese medicine involves yin and yang, ayurveda teaches about the three doshas, and Japanese Reiki harmonizes vital energy to heal and improve health.
Modern medical diagnoses involve precise and scientific descriptions of pathologic processes within a body, but the basic premise is the same: Imbalance and instability result in illness.
Advances in modern medical technology have resulted in amazing lifesaving treatments for critical injuries, massive infections, and catastrophic illness. Current medical and surgical treatments are based on science and are technically more advanced and sophisticated than laxatives, purges, or healing touch.
Although modern medicine is very good at keeping people alive, it is not very good at keeping people healthy. Some ailments and diseases are not treated very successfully at all by Western allopathic medicine. Traditional pharmaceutical-based medicine does not cure many chronic conditions, such as migraines, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia.
Unfortunately, our sick-care-based medical system trivializes wellness promotion. This is where complementary and alternative medicine can play an important role in helping many patients. An alternative-medicine provider can fill gaps in Western medicine. Ideally, your primary-care doctor will work in partnership with you to find the best treatment approach for your ailment. Often, this may involve a combination of allopathic and alternative medicine.
Most of us are familiar with acupuncture, yoga, guided imagery, and chiropractic medicine. Nutritional approaches such as macrobiotic and Atkins-type diets and vitamin supplementation can also be described as alternative-health practices.
Other disciplines may be less known. Although most of us are acquainted with massage, we may not be familiar with craniosacral therapy, Rolfing, or the Feldenkrais method of healing touch. Ayurvedic medicine, which developed in India over thousands of years; homeopathy, introduced in 18th century Germany; and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a stress management tool that incorporates elements of meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices, are examples of alternative approaches that are becoming more available in our community.
“Don’t use acupuncture as a last resort,” recommends Deidre Braun, M.S., L.Ac., an acupuncturist at Desert Orthopedic Center in Rancho Mirage who specializes in musculo-skeletal acupuncture. She says all too often patients come to see her only after years of failed traditional treatments, including epidural injections and surgery.
“If people would come in during the early or acute stages, I could help them so much more,” Braun says. She works side by side with orthopedic surgeons and says that good acupuncturists know their limits and will refer patients to a medical specialist when necessary.
Braun reminds us that “it is the rare patient that gets better after one treatment.” Most of the time, several visits (four to eight or more) are required to get maximum benefit from acupuncture.
“There is a growing sense of mistrust of mainstream medicine, and many people view naturopathic doctors as a knowledgeable source of nonbiased medical information,” notes Shannon Sinsheimer, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in private practice in Rancho Mirage.
Naturopathic doctors are trained to manage many symptoms and conditions. Sinsheimer points out that gastrointestinal function is the cornerstone of optimal health, so many patients see her initially for stomach and gastrointestinal complaints. She then works to improve other chronic conditions using targeted nutritional therapy.
Naturopaths do not treat emergency conditions like broken bones, lacerations, or urgent chest-pain situations. But they can excel at managing and alleviating chronic maladies such as anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, and arthritis and can help improve health and well-being over a lifetime.
“Naturopathy is a philosophy of holistic care aimed at treating the root cause of disease,” Sinsheimer explains. “It is not just replacing a pharmaceutical with an herb. It is really a different mindset of holistic, integrative healthcare.”
Those wary of trying something “unconventional” may need to be reminded that in many parts of the world “alternative” treatments are the primary or only source of healthcare for large populations of people. Many people throughout the world live long and healthy lives and never set foot in a Western doctor’s office!
Selecting an Alternative-Care Provider
Start with your primary-care provider. He or she may be able to suggest someone. Sometimes, nurses or other staff at your doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital can provide referrals as well.
Seek word-of-mouth and personal referrals from close friends and family to get you to the right professional.
Look for credentials. Certain providers are accredited or regulated through the State of California or another governing body, so make sure applicable licenses or registrations are up to date. Naturopathic doctors and acupuncturists are licensed by the state, and registered dietitians are nutritionists that maintain ongoing education and have passed a comprehensive examination. Chiropractors, clinical psychologists, and marriage and family therapists are also licensed by the state.
Always meet with the provider first to talk to them personally about their treatment philosophy. Seeing their office or workspace and getting acquainted with their staff should help you decide if you have found the right match.
Aim for collaborative care. A good alternative-healthcare provider should always be willing to work with your whole healthcare team, including allopathic doctors.
When Not to Seek Alternative Care
No neck chiropractic manipulation if there is unstable degenerative disc disease or severe osteoporosis
No yoga or deep massage if you have bone cancer (fractures may occur with minimal pressure)
No herbal treatments if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have advanced liver or kidney disease
Dr. Christopher Flores is a board-certified family physician with a private practice in Palm Desert.