When you visit your doctor because you are feeling unwell, or go to the hospital for an operation, you are using conventional (normal) medicine. Conventional medicine includes treatments like asthma inhalers, operations to remove tonsils and drugs such as aspirin for killing the pain. Complementary medicine means other types of medicines and treatments that are not part of conventional medicine. They include things like herbal medicines, acupuncture, and homoeopathy. Instead of getting them from your doctor, you usually have to go to a special complementary therapist for them.
Complementary medicine gets its name because it “complements”, or works alongside, conventional medicine. Another name for it is “alternative medicine”, meaning it gives you another option to try besides conventional medicine. Many people turn to complementary medicine if they feel conventional medicine has not helped them. It is especially popular for things like back pain, headaches, phobias, and eczema, which are often difficult for conventional doctors to cure.
WHAT TYPES OF COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE ARE THERE?
Here are some of the main types of complementary medicine.
Herbal medicine simply means making medicines out of plants. Many conventional medicines, such as aspirin, came from plants, to begin with, though today they are often made in factories instead. Before conventional medicine took over, people around the world made their own medicines from plants, and herbalists often use these old recipes. The milk thistle plant has been used for hundreds of years to help with liver diseases, and you can still buy milk thistle extract in herbalists’ shops and health shops today. Chinese herbal remedies, using recipes from traditional Chinese medicine, are especially popular.
Homoeopathy was invented in the 1790s by a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann. The idea behind it is that you can cure an illness by treating it with a tiny amount of a substance that would normally cause that illness. This makes the body react against the medicine and learn to cure itself. Homoeopathic remedies contain such a tiny amount of medicine that some scientists say that they cannot possibly have an effect. But many people have found that homoeopathic remedies have worked for them.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical treatment. An acupuncturist treats a person by inserting very fine needles at special points around the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works by helping a kind of energy called qi (pronounced “chee”) to flow around the body. Acupuncture is one of the most popular complementary medicines. It can be effective for back pain, skin problems and stress.
Massage and manipulation
Many complementary medicines work by massaging or manipulating the body. Massage therapists relax the body’s muscles by kneading and stretching them. Chiropractors and osteopaths manipulate your muscles, bones, and joints to try to relieve pain. Reflexologists massage the feet and hands in special ways that are designed to help other parts of the body to heal.
ARE THERE OTHER FORMS OF COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE?
There are hundreds more complementary therapies. They range from aromatherapy, which uses scents to affect the way you feel, to crystal therapy, in which the therapist places different kinds of crystals on your body. Some complementary therapists are simply healers, who claim to be able to make you better by touching you, or even just by touching a photograph of you.
DOES IT WORK?
There are many different types of complementary medicines, and some probably work better than others. Millions of people say they have been helped by homoeopathy or acupuncture, and some conventional doctors and hospitals have now started using these treatments. Some other alternative therapies have not been tested as much, and it is not clear how well they work. While conventional drugs and treatments have to be thoroughly tested for safety and effectiveness before they can be used, complementary medicines do not. That means that while some of them work very well, there could be others that are useless or even dangerous.
THE PLACEBO EFFECT
Scientists have noticed that if a patient is given a pill for an illness, they often feel better, even if the pill contains no medicine at all. This is called the placebo effect. It probably happens because if you take a pill you expect it to work, and so your body works harder to heal itself. Some people say that complementary medicines only really work because of the placebo effect. Others argue that complementary medicines are just as good as conventional ones, if not better. In most parts of the world, complementary medicine is becoming more and more popular.
Did you know?
• Reflexology is the massaging of feet (and sometimes hands). Specific points on the feet relate to different parts of the body, so massaging the correct part of the foot can help to heal the rest of the body. For example, the side of the big toe relates to the neck so massaging that can help relieve a stiff neck. The corresponding part of the foot will be painful when massaged if that part of the body is painful.
• Aromatherapy has been practised since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. It is the use of scented oils to treat various problems from skin disorders to sleeplessness.
• Some complementary therapies aim to help natural energies (called chi, ki, prana or qi) flow smoothly through the body. Practioners of therapies including reflexology, yoga, acupuncture, and macrobiotics believe that disease is caused by a blockage in the natural flow of energy in the body.