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A Brief Overview of Alternative Medicine

by Dr. Rick Silver, M.D.

With contributions from R. Lynn Shumake, Doctor of Pharmacology
and Jeff Millison, Masters in Acupuncture

Alternative medicine has been defined as those medical interventions not taught widely at U.S. medical schools or generally available at U.S. hospitals (1).

Despite the increasing use of alternative treatments by the American public, many health practitioners remain mystified by and skeptical of these approaches. The language, practices and underlying philosophies of alternative medicine may seem unfamiliar and at times even incomprehensible; and trying to step into the shoes of an alternative practitioner may be a bit like taking a journey to a foreign land. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a brief encounter with the world of alternative medicine by exploring utilization patterns, underlying beliefs and the scientific evidence for the efficacy of several therapies in treating physical and mental illnesses.

As we begin this journey to the realm of alternative medicine, we might initially observe the large number of people who are already there. Until recently, it was widely held that only a limited number of patients utilized alternative therapies. A 1993 telephone survey of 1539 adult Americans, however, found that 34 percent of respondents had used an alternative therapy in the past year, for a total of 425 million visits and with expenditures of $13.7 billion in 1990 when extrapolated to the U.S. population (1). We might wonder what is it that attracts so many people to this place. The majority of people seeking alternative therapies are those with chronic illnesses who believe that conventional medicine has few effective treatments for their conditions. In addition, many of these people endorse a "holistic" philosophy -- that body, mind and spirit are important in health -- and classify themselves as belonging in a cultural group identifiable by an interest in personal growth psychology, self-actualization and self-expression (2).

These observations might suggest to us that these patients are seeking certain qualities of the patient-practitioner relationship that are more readily available in alternative than in conventional health care settings. When we search for the reasons for these preferences, we are struck at first by the seeming differences between the language and philosophies of the alternative traditions and our own.

In most conventional medical specialties, we focus on the physical aspects of the patient's suffering, dispensing "cures" to a relatively passive recipient of care, with the ultimate goal of eliminating physical symptoms. Indeed, our understanding of what produces disease and what makes us better is reduced to the cellular and ultimately, chemical level. Healing primarily involves providing chemical or mechanical (e.g., surgical) cures which come from outside the patient.

The underlying beliefs and practices in many alternative therapies are quite distinct from the conventional approach described above, but bear a closer relation to psychiatry as practiced in the psychotherapeutic setting. Many psychotherapeutic models and many alternative systems hold that trauma and unresolved conflicts can result in the development of symptoms, both emotional and physical. Healing involves the expression and release of the emotional "energy" stemming from these conflicts. For this process to occur, the patient must be an active participant in treatment, since healing is not a cure dispensed from without but is rooted in the patient's own internal corrective mechanisms. The practitioner then plays the role not of an expert dispensing cures, but of a guide to the transformational process. We are of course speaking here of psychotherapy and not psychopharmacology, which more closely fits a conventional model of care. Moreover, symptoms have meaning for the patient -- although the ultimate goal may be to reduce the distress caused by symptoms, they are at the same time guides for where growth and transformation need to occur.

As with any journey, we may go initially out of curiosity, but will stay only if the benefits seem to outweigh the risks. So it must be with alternative medicine: anecdotal reports may peak our interest, but are by themselves insufficient to justify continued use over the long run. Even though underlying concepts and approaches differ from conventional medicine, alternative medical interventions must be subject to the same rigorous scientific assessment as any other medical treatment. To that end, I would like to briefly present research findings on the efficacy of several alternative interventions in treating a variety of physical and mental conditions.

Psychological interventions such as relaxation, meditation, support groups, and hypnosis have long been utilized for the treatment of emotional distress. The application of these same therapies to the treatment of physical illness is a more recent phenomenon and one less widely accepted by the conventional medical community. This view is shifting, however, with the increasing body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of many of these approaches for a variety of somatic problems.

For example, Spiegel studied the effect of a one year intervention of professionally-led support groups on health outcomes among women with metastatic breast cancer and found, at the 10 yr follow-up, a mean survival time of 36.6 months in the support group compared with 18.9 months in the control group (3). A study of malignant melanoma patients participating in a 6-week professionally-led support group showed a longer time to recurrence of cancer in the experimental group at the six year follow-up (4). In a study of chronic pain patients, mindfulness meditation has been found to produce statistically significant reductions in present-moment pain and increases in levels of activity previously inhibited by the pain (5). Similarly, a variety of studies have demonstrated the ability of hypnosis to reduce chronic headache pain (6-9).

Although only limited data is currently available, several research studies suggest that acupuncture may hold promise as an alternative treatment for depression. In an eight week study of 38 women aged 18 to 45 diagnosed with major depression and not being treated with an antidepressant, 64% of the subjects receiving acupuncture at acupuncture points specific for depression (as opposed to the no-treatment group and the group receiving acupuncture treatment at points not specific for depression) showed a reduction in depressive symptoms (10). Similarly, in a study of 41 patients diagnosed with a variety of depressive disorders, those subjects receiving acupuncture for six weeks showed as much symptom improvement on the Hamilton Depression Scale as those subjects receiving amitriptyline (11).

Although herbal medicines have been claimed to be effective treatments for a wide variety of mental conditions, research data on efficacy exists for only a limited number of herbs. St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is widely used in Europe, as evidenced by the 66 million daily doses prescribed in 1994 by German physicians (12). In a meta-analysis by Linde et al, pooled data from 23 randomized trials comparing hypericum with either placebo or standard antidepressants (imipramine, amitriptyline and maprotiline) showed hypericum to be effective in 55.1% of patients and placebo effective in only 22.3% of patients. In the comparisons with standard antidepressants, hypericum was found to be as effective (13). Adverse reactions are generally mild and include dry mouth, dizziness, constipation, confusion and photosensitivity (14).

Kava kava (Piper methysticum) is reputed to produce a sense of tranquility, sleepiness and increased sociability (15), and as such holds interest as an herbal anxiolytic. Only one clinical study supports this contention, however. In a 1996 randomized, placebo-controlled double-blind study, patients were treated with either kava or placebo three times daily for four weeks, resulting in a reduction in reported anxiety and tension (16).

The world of alternative medicine is, of course, a great deal more sophisticated and complex than could possibly be conveyed here. As a consumer of these therapies for personal use and a practitioner of the same in my professional work, I believe that they may provide our patients with additional tools for alleviating their physical and mental suffering. I invite you to continue to explore these novel approaches with a healthy balance of both curiosity and skepticism.


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2. Astin JA. Why patients use alternative medicine. JAMA 279(19):1548-1553, May 20, 1998.

3.Spiegel D, Bloom J, Kraemer HC and Gottheil E. Effect of psychosocial treatment on survival of patients with metastatic breast cancer. The Lancet, October 14, 1989:888-891.

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10. Allen J. Psychological Science.9:397-401, 1998.

11. Yang X, Liu X and Jia Y.Clinical observation on needling extrachannel points in treating mental depression. J Trad Chinese Med. 14:14-18, 1994.

12.Murray MT.St. John's Wort extract in depression: over three million prescriptions per year in Germany. American Journal of Natural Medicine.3(10):5-7, December 1996.

13. Linde K et al.Br Med J. 313:253-258, 1996.

14.Nierenberg AA.St John's Wort: a putative over-the-counter herbal antidepressant. The Journal of Depressive Disorders, 3(2):3,16,17.

15. Kava kava: a calming herb from the South Pacific. Herbs for Health, January/February 1997: 42-44.

16.Lehmann E, Kinzler E and Friedman J. Efficacy of a special Kava extract (Piper methysticum) in patients with states of anxiety, tension and excitedness on non-mental origin -- a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of four weeks treatment. Phytomedicine, 3(2):113-119, 1996.




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