Rethinking What Alternative Medicine Really Means

Rethinking What Alternative Medicine Really Means

I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled The Evolution of Alternative Medicine. Growing up, I equated “alternative medicine” to what “witch doctors” presumably did; created potions and lotions that were magic. As pointed out in the article, “The idea of alternative medicine – an outsider movement challenging the medical status quo – has fallen out of favor in the last several years. Plenty of people still identify strongly with the label, but these days, they’re often the most extreme advocates, the ones who believe in using homeopathy instead of vaccines, ‘liver flushes’ instead of HIV drugs, and garlic instead of chemotherapy.”

The article points out an emerging acceptance of integrated health with a congressional name change at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (which is part of the National Institutes of Health). The change to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health redefined the mission of the agency from that of exploring anything that didn’t include drugs or surgery, to exploring alternative approaches that can be validated with scientific investigation. In addition, it also gave those trained medical professionals that believe in treating chronic health conditions with complementary therapies recognized legitimacy.

The article got me thinking about my own chronic pain. I regularly exercise and was experiencing shoulder pain. I tried resting, icing, heating, stretching – none of it helped or only helped for a short period of time. I was dreading going to an orthopedic specialist; I had visions of surgery, not working out for months and the day-to day-inconvenience I would have to experience if I was required to write left handed. I put off going to the doctor and became an ibuprofen “junkie” knowing full well that wasn’t an ideal long term solution, due to the gastrointestinal damage they can cause over time.

By luck, I met a chiropractor at an informal exercise clinic. He talked a lot about the underlying mechanics of movement and how many trainers simply aren’t aware of all the elements leading to injury. He said that many times he can predict an injury because of how someone moves. In addition to muscle therapy, he prescribes specific exercises to correct the problem and prevent injury. More often than not, people don’t do their therapeutic exercises because they don’t believe they will help. They have a pain, and they want the pain treated and resolved immediately. Not believing they need to “work” to solve the pain, they come back to the chiropractor with the injury he predicted. He taught me not only the proper way to execute a movement, but to also visualize engaging the correct muscle groups for that particular exercise. Feeling the right muscles engage, not just any muscle that could accomplish the same movement, gave me more confidence in my training and lessened my fear of repeat injury.

Chiropractors were once considered alternative medicine, although over time have become more widely accepted – some insurance plans even cover them. Happily, I was able to resolve my pain without the hassle of surgery or the cost of MRIs, specialists and hospitals. He helped me optimize my movements, be more closely in tune with my body and, ultimately, he changed the way I think of alternative medicine. The final lines of the article summarize it perfectly for me, “When doctors talk about treating the patient’s ‘body, mind, and spirit,’ it can sound like a feel-good catchphrase. But in fact, there may be no other way to treat diseases that take years to develop and are intimately tied to the ways people think, feel, and live their everyday lives.”