Alternative medicine: effective treatment or dangerous advice?

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 10 percent of Americans suffer from pain every day, and many more experience it intermittently. The opioid public health crisis is not making life easier for those with chronic pain either— doctors are limiting the opioids they prescribe for these conditions due to the increasing rate of addiction and overdose deaths. The pills alone have been linked to some 50,000 deaths in 2017, as stated in The New York Times.

These pills can play a crucial part in touching the chronic pain so many Americans live with on a daily basis, and many patients are being denied these medications for fear of adding to the growing crisis. For those whose pain is not being touched by substitute prescription pain relievers or over-the-counter medicines and treatments, they often turn to anything else that might be able to help them: including alternative medicines.

Alternative medicine, also called integrative, complementary or holistic medicine, is practiced in some form by approximately 40 percent of adults in the United States, according to WebMD. Treatments can range from herbal supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, energy therapies or reiki, among others. Similarly, ayurvedic medicine, one of the world’s oldest medical systems that dates back more than 3,000 years, is often considered a popular form of alternative medicine.

Some “western” doctors have begun recommending more natural pain management options for their patients, supplementary to other forms of medicines or treatments, or as preliminary steps. Tai chi and even garlic, among other alternative medicines, have been shown to have positive effects on anything from balance and fall risk to cholesterol and blood pressure, according to Health Spectator. Other patients find some relief with turmeric pills or yoga stretches. While it doesn’t seem like something as innocent as an herb can cause many health issues, some misleading alternative medicine advice columns and blogs are spreading false— and potentially dangerous— information to those who are desperate for a break from pain.

Many alternative treatments, whether well-meaning or not, are not entirely proven to be effective. One large target of this industry is cancer patients, explained the Cleveland Clinic. Eating all natural and organic is touted to be a potential “cure” for cancer, but after a period of time, it has often spread or negatively impacted the patient’s help in some other manner. Cancer is a complicated disease, and while, yes, chemotherapy and radiation are also harmful to the body, alternative treatments have little evidence to prove them as safe or effective.

Instead, complementary alternative medicine is more widely recommended— using alternative and holistic treatments in tandem with proven methods. Especially for those with life-threatening illnesses, many western doctors strongly caution against completely forgoing western treatments or monitoring in the least. For patients with less serious conditions, alternative medicine can be an effective route for managing some of their symptoms, as long as proper consultation and research is done to ensure that no dangerous side effects or interactions occur.

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