In the field of medicine, there has often been a divide between those who focus on modern medicine and those who prefer alternative practices. However, both sides can agree on one fact: the number of patients using complementary and alternative medicine is growing.
Recent studies show that complementary and alternative medicine is the fastest growing area in health care today. In 2015, an estimated 42 percent of the U.S. population used some form of alternative therapy. The numbers are even higher in family practice settings: One study found that 50 percent of patients were using at least one alternative therapy — and only half of them had told their family physicians.
Here is a look at the most popular complementary and alternative medicine treatments available here in the Lowcountry:
Acupuncture originates from China and has been practiced there for thousands of years. It involves the insertion of very thin needles through the patient's skin at specific points on the body. The needles are inserted to various depths. Therapeutic benefits include pain relief and alleviation from nausea caused by chemotherapy.
Acupuncture generally involves several weekly or bi-weekly treatments. Most courses consist of up to 12 sessions. A visit to an acupuncturist will involve an exam and an assessment of the patient's condition, the insertion of needles, and advice on self-care. Most sessions last about 30 minutes.
Acupuncture points are seen by Western practitioners as places where nerves, muscles and connective tissue can be stimulated. Acupuncture practitioners say that the stimulation increases blood flow while triggering the activity of our own body's natural painkillers.
The use of acupuncture to alleviate pain and nausea after surgery is becoming more widespread. Even the U.S. Air Force began teaching "Battlefield Acupuncture" to physicians deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan in early 2009.
According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture is effective for treating 28 conditions, while evidence indicates it may have an effective therapeutic value for many more. People with tension headaches and migraines may find acupuncture to be very effective in alleviating their symptoms, according to a study at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Another study at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center found that acupuncture treatments twice a week relieved debilitating symptoms of xerostomia — severe dry mouth — among patients treated with radiation for head and neck cancer.
As more and more physicians accept acupuncture, it is being considered as a treatment for a wider range of illnesses and conditions. For instance, a study found that acupuncture might help indigestion symptoms commonly experienced by pregnant women.
Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world's oldest whole-body healing systems. It developed thousands of years ago in India and is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body and spirit. The primary focus of Ayurvedic medicine is to promote good health, rather than fight disease. But treatments may be recommended for specific health problems.
According to Ayurvedic theory, everything in the universe — living or not — is connected. Good health is achieved when your mind, body and spirit are in harmony with the universe. A disruption of this harmony can lead to poor health and sickness. For followers of Ayurveda, anything that affects your physical, spiritual or emotional well-being can cause you to be out of balance with the universe.
Treatment begins with an internal purification process, followed by a special diet, herbal remedies, massage therapy, yoga and meditation. Studies have shown reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol and stress in people who practiced these methods.
In India, Ayurveda is considered a form of medical care, equal to conventional Western medicine. Practitioners undergo state-recognized, institutionalized training. Currently, Ayurvedic practitioners are not licensed in the United States, and there is no national standard for Ayurvedic training or certification. Some of the products used in Ayurvedic medicine contain herbs, metals, minerals or other materials that may be harmful if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner.
Chiropractic treatments focus on musculoskeletal system disorders and the nervous system. Chiropractic care is used most often to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints like back pain, neck pain, pain in the joints of the arms or legs, and headaches.
Chiropractors practice a drug-free, hands-on approach to health care that includes patient examination, diagnosis and treatment. Chiropractors have broad diagnostic skills and are also trained to recommend therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises, as well as nutritional, dietary and lifestyle counseling.
The most common therapeutic procedure performed by chiropractors is spinal manipulation, which helps restore joint mobility by manually applying a controlled force into joints that have become hypomobile — or restricted in their movement — as a result of a tissue injury.
Tissue injury can be caused by a single traumatic event, such as improper lifting of a heavy object, or through repetitive stresses, such as sitting in an awkward position with poor spinal posture for an extended period of time. In either case, injured tissues undergo physical and chemical changes that can cause inflammation, pain and diminished function for the sufferer. Manipulation, or adjustment of the affected joint and tissues, restores mobility and alleviates pain and muscle tightness, allowing tissues to heal.
Visualization, or guided imagery, is a practice that's gaining ground among cancer patients, stroke victims and those who suffer from anxiety and stress. Doctors direct patients to focus on a specific image or concept to improve the connection between the mind and body. In medical studies, brain scans of patients who follow this practice show that visualizing an activity promotes the same brain activity as actually performing the activity.
Doctors say that guided imagery could help stroke patients relearn basic actions, or to treat patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers also hope that visualization techniques can make the cancer treatment process easier for patients and help address a number of psychological and stress-related conditions.
Best of all, guided imagery poses little to no risk for most patients, and can be practiced almost anywhere, making it accessible to a wide audience.
Many vitamins and nutritional supplements have their roots in ancient Chinese medicine or other alternative medical treatments. Although most supplements remain unregulated in the U.S., some well-established scientific studies support the use of many popular herbal remedies. For example, fish oil helps reduce your risk of heart disease, and may also help treat arthritis and depression. Garlic may reduce your risk of cancer or heart disease and helps lower cholesterol, while ginseng provides important benefits for heart patients and those suffering from depression. Thousands of other herbal supplements may also provide some benefits, but more studies are needed.
Despite the lack of clinical evidence for some herbal remedies, natural supplements remain the most widely used alternative treatment in the U.S. This widespread use doesn't necessarily mean these supplements are safe for consumption, however. Some contain dangerous toxins, such as lead or mercury, and others may interact with your current medications. A number of herbal remedies are downright dangerous, and pose serious risk of heart attack, stroke or even death. Talk to your doctor before trying any new health product, and look for supplements backed by reputable scientific research, not gimmicky marketing spiels or testimonials.
Homeopathy is a system of medicine that involves treating the individual with highly diluted substances, given mainly in tablet form, with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing. A homeopath will match the most appropriate medicine to each patient based on that patient’s symptoms.
Homeopathy is based on the principle that you can treat "like with like" — that is, a substance that causes symptoms when taken in large doses can be used in small amounts to treat those same symptoms. For example, drinking too much coffee can cause sleeplessness and agitation, so according to this principle, when made into a homeopathic medicine, it could be used to treat people with these symptoms. This concept is sometimes used in conventional medicine; for example, the stimulant Ritalin is used to treat patients with ADHD, or small doses of allergens such as pollen are sometimes used to de-sensitize allergic patients. However, one major difference with homeopathic medicines is that substances are used in ultra high dilutions, which makes them non-toxic.
Hypnotists guide a patient to an altered state of consciousness, and then make subtle suggestions to help the patient improve his health and well-being. Hypnosis has long been used to help patients stop smoking, lose weight and treat insomnia. Hypnosis also shows promise for stress relief, pain management, headaches, dental pain and childbirth. Although scientists know little about how hypnosis works, studies have shown that hypnosis creates a biological reaction within the body, including stimulation of the nervous system.
However, studies suggest hypnosis doesn't work for everyone. Some practitioners believe that patients with an open mind toward the treatment experience more measurable results, while others feel there's no way to know if hypnosis will affect you or not.
Hyperbaric medicine, also known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, is the medical use of oxygen at a level higher than atmospheric pressure. Hyperbaric treatments require a pressure chamber and a means of delivering 100 percent oxygen. Trained professionals set treatment schedules based on patients’ symptoms, and monitor the patients and may adjust the schedule as required. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used to treat decompression sickness, and has also shown great effectiveness in treating conditions such as gas gangrene and carbon monoxide poisoning. Researchers also are studying whether the treatment could help with other conditions like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.
Massage therapy has become a mainstream part of the modern lifestyle, but few recognize it as a legitimate medical treatment. During a massage, therapists manipulate muscles to ease pain and tension, but some types of massage may also help improve a variety of other health conditions. Perhaps most promising is a University of Miami study showing improved immune function in HIV patients after massage therapy. Certain types of massage also ease cancer treatment symptoms and help reduce the severe pain of fibromyalgia. For professional athletes and weekend warriors, sports massage eases muscle soreness, speeds recovery and may even improve performance.
Few medical professionals associate massage with any serious health risks, although a massage that's too intense may cause pain or discomfort. Talk to your doctor before you add massage to your wellness plan.
More than 10 percent of the U.S. population has tried meditation, making it one of the most widely practiced forms of alternative medicine. During meditation, patients focus on slow, even breathing and clearing their minds of distraction. Some also use a trigger word or idea to help them ease into this practice, while others may incorporate prayer or spiritual teachings. For the majority of practitioners, meditation provides a free, personalized and versatile method of stress relief that can be performed virtually anywhere and at anytime. For others, this practice may also have far-reaching health effects. And it seems there's a growing body of scientific evidence to support its effectiveness.
According to the National Institutes of Health, meditation may improve focus and relieve the effects of attention-deficit disorder. Studies also show an improvement in asthma, pain and high blood pressure symptoms among those who meditate regularly. Because of its ability to reduce stress levels, meditation may also relieve depression, insomnia and anxiety while lowering long-term risk for disease. Patients often combine meditation with yoga or tai chi for additional physical and mental health benefits.
Peripheral nerves carry information to and from the brain. They also carry signals to and from the spinal cord to the rest of the body. Peripheral neuropathy means these nerves don't work properly, possibly due to damage to a single nerve or to a nerve group. Whether single or multiple nerves are affected by neuropathy, the underlying cause can often be targeted for treatment. Medications such as pain relievers and antidepressants can be prescribed to mask the problem.
A physician specializing in neuropathy can also offer a treatment program that uses nerve blocks combined with electrical stimulation. A local anesthetic is injected in three places around the ankle on both legs, and patients are given a pair of socks featuring small electrical current to wear for 30 minutes a day at home. A treatment program is usually eight weeks long. Patients often go to the office twice a week to receive a total of 16 peripheral nerve block treatments. The treatment is painless, approved by the FDA, and covered by most major insurance companies, including Medicare. Published clinical trials show an 87 percent success rate.
Benefits include reduced pain and numbness, improved balance and stability, improved sleep, reduction of swelling and increased blood flow.
Reflexology, or zone therapy, involves the physical act of applying pressure to the feet, hands, or ears with specific thumb, finger, and hand techniques without the use of oil or lotion. It is based on what reflexologists claim to be a system of zones and reflex areas that they say reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands, with the premise that such work effects a physical change to the body. There is no consensus among reflexologists on how reflexology is supposed to work; most agree, however, that areas on the foot correspond to areas of the body, and that by manipulating these one can improve health through one's “qi.” Reflexologists divide the body into 10 equal zones, five on the right and five on the left, with each zone corresponding to an area elsewhere on the body.
More research is needed on the benefits of reflexology; many doctors warn that treating potentially serious illnesses with reflexology, which has no proven efficacy, could delay the seeking of appropriate medical treatment.
For decades, people have relaxed and meditated to soothing sounds, including recordings of waves lapping, desktop waterfalls and wind chimes. Lately, a new kind of sound therapy, often called sound healing, has begun to attract a following. Also known as vibrational medicine, the practice employs the vibrations of the human voice as well as objects that resonate — tuning forks, gongs, Tibetan singing bowls — to go beyond relaxation and stimulate healing.
Music therapists are found in nearly every area of the helping professions. Some commonly found practices include developmental work (communication, motor skills, etc.) with individuals with special needs, songwriting and listening in reminiscence/orientation work with the elderly, processing and relaxation work, and rhythmic entrainment for physical rehabilitation in stroke victims. Music therapy is also used in some medical hospitals, cancer centers, schools, alcohol and drug recovery programs, psychiatric hospitals and correctional facilities.
If you've ever stretched and relaxed your muscles in a yoga class at the gym or a local yoga studio, you may have noticed an improvement in your flexibility and circulation. But did you know yoga also provides some serious health benefits? Studies show that regular yoga practice reduces stress, eases depression and helps control high blood pressure and diabetes symptoms. It also helps to reduce inflammation, which can improve asthma symptoms, ease back pain and even keep your heart healthier over time. Unlike traditional medical care, yoga comes with a low price tag and poses few risks, making it accessible to a wide variety of people.
More than 7 percent of people in the U.S. practice yoga, and people around the world have enjoyed this traditional treatment for thousands of years. Yoga classes combine physical postures and gentle stretching with relaxed breathing and meditation, helping to unite the mind, body and spirit for maximum health. Of course, even with its many benefits, yoga can't replace your family doctor. Instead, try different types of yoga to complement your regular medical care plan, and ask your instructor about the best classes for your specific wellness concerns.
MONTHLY SALUTES THE FOLLOWING PRACTITIONERS OF...
••• Ageless Acupuncture: Cheryl McCarthy, L.Ac. Dipl.Ac., MAcOM has been treating patients in the Lowcountry since 2006. Cheryl is practicing very gentle acupuncture. She treats all types of pain, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, back pain, tennis/golfers elbow, shoulder problems and sciatica, as well as digestive problems, women's health issues including fertility and menopause symptoms, post-stroke, stress, anxiety and more. McCarthy serves Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Okatie, Ridegland, Hardeeville and Beaufort. She has offices in the Carolina Spline & Wellness Center in Okatie and at Beaufort Chiropractic in Beaufort. 843-505-0321
•••• FACES DaySpa: Massage therapy is at its best when adopted as part of a healthy, preventative lifestyle. The benefits of massage are well documented: lower blood pressure, decreased blood sugar levels, decreased stress, increased immune function. A healthy lifestyle can help to prevent many of the chronic conditions that plague us as a nation, and, in the long run, it’s more effective to prevent a disease from happening than to treat one once it does. 843-785-3075, www.facesdayspa.com
••• Good Health Unlimited: Natural nutrition is primarily about promoting health through low-fat diets rich in whole, natural foods, but it also encourages using natural complimentary healthcare and reducing environmental hazards wherever possible. Health is, without hope of argument, holistic. It involves all tangible and intangible parts of the human being. What we eat — and fail to eat — is absolutely, undeniably one of the central factors in establishing, improving or maintaining excellent, feel-great, live-long health. 843-681-7701, www.goodhealthunlimited.com
••• Hyperbaric Therapy of the Lowcountry: Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is used internationally in the treatment of a wide range of conditions. Hyperbaric Therapy of the Lowcountry utilizes state-of-the-art, fully computerized hyperbaric technology and offers complimentary consultations. 843-681-3300, www.hyperbarictherapylowcountry.com
••• BenchMark Physical Therapy: BenchMark Physical Therapy is committed to inspiring and empowering people to reach their full potential through high-quality, evidence-based health care with a passion for excellence. This commitment is just one reason why they get better results. Choose BenchMark. Get better results, faster. 843-815-2563, www.benchmarkpt.com
••• The Bunge Clinic: Dr. Eric L. Bunge, DC, FMS, is a chiropractic physician with a strong focus on restoring mobility and stability in order to build a fit and well-functioning body. The Bunge Clinic also offers today’s safest, most effective techniques for healing and preventing injuries: functional movement assessment, Graston fascia release, Class 4 laser therapy, Kinesio-taping, low force adjusting, and posture correction. 843-284-6959, www.bungeclinic.com
••• Namaste Spa: Namaste Spa prides itself on providing the highest quality spa services in a luxury setting. Swedish relaxation, therapeutic deep tissue, warm stone and prenatal massage are just a few of the many treatments that we offer to complement a healthy holistic lifestyle. Massage therapy benefits include stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, improved muscle tone and promotion of injury and illness recovery. Our highly trained and licensed therapists can create a customized massage to help you live your healthiest, best life. www.namastespahhi.com, 843-785-2500
••• Memory Matters: Are you concerned about changes in your memory? Memory Matters offers free, confidential memory screenings by appointment. Early recognition of mild cognitive impairment provides an opportunity for healthcare professionals to treat this condition, and possibly slow down the changes in memory and other thinking skills. 843-842-6698, www.memory-matters.org