What is Alternative Medicine All About? Part One

What Is Alternative Medicine All About?

Per a random survey conducted in 1997, 42% of Americans sought out and used one or more types of medical interventions that were not taught in medical schools and were not generally available in U.S. hospitals. This represented an eight-percentage point increase over the 1990 results of the same survey. While the clear majority (96%) of these people were also seeking conventional treatment for their health problems, less than 40% of these people told their conventional doc- tors what they were doing. Clearly, something’s going on with alternative medicine.

More than half of these Americans paid for the entire cost of treatment themselves, contributing to the estimated $27 billion spent on alternative medicine treatments in 1997—almost equal to U.S. consumers’ out-of-pocket expenses for conventional physician’s services in the same time. In total, Americans made 629 million visits to alternative healers in 1997, nearly 243 million more visits than to all U.S. primary care physicians. While no comparable survey results have been published since then, all indications are that Americans have continued to embrace alternative therapies, most likely at an accelerating rate. Clearly, alternative medicine is a big business.

The mainstream medical community can no longer ignore alternative therapies. The public interest is extensive and growing. You have only to look at the proliferation of popular health books, health food stores, and clinics offering healing therapies to realize that this interest cannot be dismissed. In other words, Americans want some- thing more than biomedicine, and they are willing to pay for it.

Why Are People Turning to Alternative Medicine?

Some people have the same goal for both conventional and alternative medicine, such as the use of both pain medications and acupuncture to control chronic pain. Others may have a different expectation for each approach: For example, seeing a conventional practitioner for antibiotics to eradicate an infection, and then using an alternative practitioner to improve natural immunity through a healthy lifestyle.

Someone receiving chemotherapy may use meditation and visualization to control the side effects of the chemotherapeutic agents. People who combine conventional and alternative therapies are making therapeutic choices on their own and assuming responsibility for their own health.

Thirteen Top Reasons People Seek Alternative Therapies, 1990-1997:

  • Neck problems
  • Back problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression Headaches
  • Arthritis
  • GI problems
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sprain/strains
  • Allergies
  • Lung problems
  • Hypertension

Because alternative therapists are rushing to meet the demand, it is increasingly difficult for consumers to figure out how and where to get the best health care. It may be difficult to find reliable information to help separate the healers from those who pretend to have medical knowledge. You should beware of healers who display these characteristics:

  • Say they have all the answers.
  • Maintain that their therapy is the only effective therapy.
  • Promise overnight success.
  • Refuse to include other practitioners as part of the healing team.
  • Seem more interested in money than in your well-being.

Some alternative specialties are more regulated and licensed than others, but none come with guarantees—any more than conventional medicine comes with guarantees. Many people locate alternative therapists through friends, family, an exercise instructor, health food stores, or referral lines at local hospitals. Most people don’t speak with their conventional medicine providers about their use of alternative therapies, out of fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or discouragement. These fears are unreasonable. If your physician is judgmental and not pleased to see you taking an active interest in your health, then you may want to consider finding another physician. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that your doctor knows more about medicine than you do (unless you’re a doctor too!). By having an open and frank discussion, you can find therapies that help address your concerns while steering clear of those that are dangerous or hoaxes.


  • To pursue therapeutic benefit.
  • To seek a degree of wellness not supported in biomedicine.
  • To attend to quality-of-life issues.
  • They prefer high personal involvement in decision-making.
  • They believe conventional medicine treats symptoms, not underlying cause.
  • They find conventional medical treatments to be lacking or ineffective.
  • To avoid toxicities and/or invasiveness of conventional interventions.
  • To decrease use of prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
  • To identify with a particular healing system as a part of cultural background.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Health

One of the first problems a healthcare consumer encounters when considering some type of non-traditional medical treatment is that of language. Many people regard the term “alternative medicine” as too narrow or misleading and are concerned that the term does not encompass a full understanding of traditional healing practices. It would be more helpful for a common language to be developed without people being captive to it. For consistency’s sake, this guide will use the terms conventional medicine or biomedicine to describe standard Western medical practices and the terms alternative medicine or complementary medicine to describe the other healing practices that are this guide’s focus.

However, there are no universally accepted terms. For example, the term alternative medicine is used more in the United States while complementary medicine is used in Europe, but do they really mean the same thing? And, should Western medicine be called Western medicine when it’s practiced in the modern hospitals of India and Singapore? Confusion over the very terms used lies at the heart of much of the con- fusion about alternative medicine as a whole, especially as more and more information, often contradictory, becomes available to the consumer.

Terms Used to Compare the Two Types of Medicine

Mainstream Medicine:

  • Modern
  • Western
  • Allopathic
  • Conventional
  • Orthodox
  • Biomedicine
  • Scientific


  • Ancient
  • Eastern
  • Homeopathic
  • Unconventional
  • Traditional
  • Natural medicine
  • Indigenous healing methods

The line between conventional and alternative medicine is imprecise and frequently changing. For example, is the use of megavitamins or diet regimes to treat disease considered medicine, a lifestyle change, or both? Can having your pain lessened by massage be considered a medical therapy? How should spiritual healing and prayer—some of the oldest, most widely used, and least studied traditional approaches—be classified? Although the terms alternative or complementary are frequently used, in some instances they represent the primary treatment for an individual. Thus, conventional medicine sometimes assumes a secondary role and actually becomes a complement to the primary treatment plan.

Conventional Medicine

Conventional Western medicine is only about 200 years old. It is founded on the philosophical beliefs of René Descartes (1596-1650), who regarded the mind and body as separate, and on Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) principles of physics, which view the universe as a large mechanical clock where everything operates in a linear, sequential form. This mechanistic perspective of medicine views the human body as a series of body parts. It also is a “reductionist” approach in which the person is converted into increasingly smaller components: systems, organs, cells, and biochemicals. Taking that idea further, people are reduced to patients, patients are reduced to bodies, and bodies are reduced to machines. Health is viewed as the absence of disease—in other words, nothing broken at the present time. The focus of sick care is on the symptoms of dysfunction. Doctors are trained to fix or repair broken parts through the use of drugs, radiation, surgery, or replacement of body parts. This approach is aggressive and militant, with physicians in a war against disease, and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Both consumers and practitioners of biomedicine believe it is better to do something rather than wait and see whether the body’s natural processes resolve the problem, and attack the disease directly by medication or surgery rather than try to build up the per- son’s resistance and ability to overcome the disease.

Biomedicine views the person primarily as a physical body, with the mind and spirit being separate and secondary, or at times, even irrelevant. It is powerful medicine in that it has virtually eliminated some infectious diseases such as smallpox and polio.

As a “rescue” medicine, the biomedical approach is wonderful. It is highly effective in emergencies, traumatic injuries, bacterial infections, and some highly sophisticated surgeries. In these cases, treatment is fast, aggressive, and goal-oriented, with the responsibility for cure falling on the practitioner. The priority of intervention is on opposing and suppressing the symptoms of illness. This mindset can be seen in many medications with countering prefixes such as “an” or “anti”—analgesics, anesthetics, anti-inflammatories, antipyretics, and so on. Because conventional medicine is preoccupied with parts and symptoms and not with whole working systems of matter, energy, thoughts, and feelings, it doesn’t do well with long-term systemic illnesses such as arthritis, heart disease, and hypertension.

Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine is an umbrella term for hundreds of therapies drawn from all over the world. Many forms are based on the medical systems of older cultures, including Egyptian, Chinese, Asian Indian, Greek, and Native American, and have been handed down over thousands of years, both orally and as written records. Other therapies, such as osteopathy and naturopathy, have evolved in the United States over the past two centuries. Still others, such as some of the mind-body and bioelectromagnetic approaches, are on the frontier of scientific knowledge and understanding.

Although they represent diverse approaches, alternative therapies share certain attributes. They are based on the paradigm of whole systems, and the belief that people are more than physical bodies with fixable and replaceable parts. Mental, emotional, and spiritual components of well-being are considered to play a crucial and equal role in a person’s state of health. Since body, mind, and spirit are one unified reality, illness is considered to affect, and be affected by, both body and mind.

Even Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, espoused a holistic orientation when he taught doctors to observe their patients’ life circumstances and emotional states. Socrates agreed, declaring, “Curing the soul; that is the first thing.” In alternative medicine, symptoms are believed to be an expression of the body’s wisdom as it reacts to cure its own imbalance or disease. Other threads or concepts common to most forms of alternative medicine include the following:

  • An internal self-healing process exists within each person.
  • People are responsible for making their own decisions regarding their health care.
  • Nature, time, and patience are the great healers.

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