08 February 2008

Where complementary therapy fits in

Taking care of your body in the relaxed, calm way characteristic of complementary medicine can be refreshing. But how does it fit into the conventional medicine picture?

There's something deliciously wholesome about taking care of your body in the relaxed, calm way characteristic of complementary medicine. Unfortunately, there's still much debate about the safety and efficacy of these treatments.

However, those on both sides of the divide seem to agree that complementary therapy and conventional medicine both have their place. It's merely a question of applying the different approaches under the correct circumstances.

Complementary therapy is generally aimed at maintaining and improving health, thereby preventing disease, although it can also sometimes be used in the treatment of disease. One way in which it differs from conventional (allopathic) medicine is that the latter is more specifically aimed at treating existing disease, with less of a focus on prevention.

Not on its own
An important aspect of many complementary techniques is the fact that they involve human touch. Research has repeatedly shown that touch therapy can boost the immune system and have positive effects on one's mental state.

The added bonus is that complementary therapy is designed to be less invasive and more lifestyle-orientated and proactive than conventional medicine, which is often reactive.

There are a few areas in which interventions that historically fall into the complementary arena are backed up by enough in the way of studies and clinical experience to make them useful on their own. Acupuncture in pain management, specifically certain back problems, is one instance.

However, progressive thinkers seem to agree that in terms of treatment, it's best to use complementary and allopathic disciplines in conjunction – the term 'complementary', after all, tells the story. This is why it's important to discuss your holistic treatment plan with a professional, preferably a medical doctor who also has some training in alternative healing.

Studies point to benefits
While a lot more research needs to be done on the safety and efficacy of complementary therapies, there are already many scientific studies that underscore the advantages of some of these treatments:

Meditation, long recognised as a component of Eastern religions, is now also a popular therapy in Western societies. Apart from the obvious stress relief that goes hand in hand with clearing your mind, research shows that transcendental meditation (where you sit upright for 20 minutes, eyes closed, silently speaking a mantra) can:

  • decrease insulin resistance, blood pressure and heart-rate variability, thereby improving one's cardiovascular health;
  • reduce the brain's reaction to pain.

Reflexology is a modern Western therapy in which pressure is applied to distinct areas of the feet, causing physiological changes to take place in the rest of the body.

Preliminary research suggests that reflexology may:

  • help women with breast cancer cope better with the condition by relieving depression and anxiety;
  • benefit people who suffer from multiple sclerosis by alleviating motor, sensory and urinary symptoms.

While the idea of being a human pin cushion doesn't appeal to everyone, the ancient art of acupuncture does seem to hold benefits. For example, research shows that:

  • using Chinese acupuncture before and during surgery can cut one's need for painkillers and reduce your chances of experiencing post-operative itchiness, nausea and dizziness;
  • acupuncture can reduce a mother's anxiety before her child undergoes surgery, thereby calming the child as well.

The US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also notes that acupuncture can help to alleviate menstruation-associated cramps and back pain, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis.

Apart from the feeling of wellbeing one experiences when surrounded by pleasant smells, aromatherapy may also have certain medical benefits. Researchers have found that:

  • lavender aromatherapy can help people to wake up more energised;
  • aromatherapy, combined with massage, can help new mothers feel less depressed and anxious;
  • aromatherapy can help ease postoperative nausea and vomiting.

If you've ever had a professional massage, you'll know that it can do wonders to relieve tension in your body. What's more, research shows that:

  • therapeutic massage can reduce the intensity of muscle soreness following strenuous exercise;
  • regular massaging can reduce pain and improve function in people suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee;
  • slow stroke massage can be used effectively as a complementary therapeutic strategy in people who are depressed.

- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, November 2007)


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